I was curious to read Jessica Park's YA romance, Flat Out Love, as it's published by Amazon Children's Publishing and I've been interested in how their publishing arm would work out and what they're focusing on. I wasn't prepared to enjoy the book as much as I did. It was billed as a teen romance so I was expecting it to be fairly formulaic, and in fact there was less romance and more about dealing with growing up, coping with love, trust and loss. So overall there was much more meat to the story than I was expecting. There were some interesting twists and turns although I guessed the main one well before the end of the book. That didn't matter, though, because what was important was the way Park developed the characters and situations and the touching ways they all ended up resolving their issues. Park uses settings very effectively and the city of Boston itself plays a major role in the story. So going back to my comments on Truby's book yesterday, this book is a great example of using secondary characters and settings to augment the protagonist's main journey. Don't write this book off as a fluffy summer romance. It's anything but. It's not too heavy, but rather is an accessible way for young readers to think about how to cope with change and growing up under often difficult circumstances. It's also a quick read. You can get through it in a day or two and it kept my interest throughout.
While I'm not planning on attempting to write a screenplay anytime soon, I really enjoyed John Truby's The Anatomy of a Story. Its lessons on story-structure are great for those who write any form of narrative, including fiction, although they're focused more on screenwriting and his examples are taken from the screenwriting world. I read this book originally as a "craft" book so I could think about narrative story structure, but in the end I came away with a new appreciation for a good film script. And I'll never look at Tootsie the same way again after reading the way Truby analyzes the script. (And I mean that in a good way.)
While Truby is famous for his 22-step structure for story-construction, what I found particularly useful in the book was the way he looked at character webs and story worlds. The insights he brings about using each character to illustrate the protagonist's main conflict and using the world of the story (settings, props etc) to back that up, is so helpful both in thinking about writing, as well as in simply reading/analyzing a book or movie. Reading Truby has helped me see how creators achieve or fail to achieve levels of meaning in their work through elements of character, plot and setting external to the main protagonist. While it's obviously a "craft book", it's also of general interest to readers and movie-goers who may be interested in how creators of these works enrich our experiences through careful design of all the story elements.
I've been reading a lot about self-publishing lately, as well as talking to friends who have gone the self-publishing route with their own books, and am intrigued by some of the differences between this form of publishing and more "traditional" publishing. A lot has been shared by authors about the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing in terms of artistic and editorial control, responsibility for marketing and social media etc. But less has been written about the relationship between the authors and their readers in terms of self-published authors versus traditionally published authors. I've become aware that as a reader I have a different relationship with an author who self-publishes than one who is traditionally published. While I can enjoy the works and write reviews to share my thoughts either way, I've noticed that self-published authors will often re-brand (change cover designs etc and even change the text of a book) without my realizing it so I become more easily confused about whether they have a new book out or it's a repackaging of an existing book. It's hard to keep on top of this unless I avidly follow the author's Facebook page or Twitter feed. The Eden series by Keary Taylor is a good example here. Eden was originally a stand-alone dystopian YA book which I loved. It has recently been re-released (and re-written) as The Bane, the first in a trilogy. I had to do some detective work on Keary Taylor's website to work out whether I needed to purchase and read The Bane to follow the next in the series i.e. I didn't know whether it was simply a repackaging of Eden or it had been rewritten. On perusing the first chapter of the new version, it looked exactly the same as the first chapter of the original book. (BTW, it has been rewritten for anyone interested and I have yet to read the new version.)
Part of the problem here for self-published authors is that they don't have the marketing dollars and platforms of traditionally published authors available to them. It's hard for me to work out when new releases by these authors are coming out at all if I don't subscribe to their Twitter feeds and even then I miss a lot if I'm not following religiously. Amazon isn't much help because it seems to be hit and miss whether they pick up that you bought a self-published author's first book when they make recommendations on what you might like to read next.
I suppose these are kinks in a newish system and readers who are devoted to particular self-published authors will make it a point to seek out their new works and know when they are repackaging old works. But it is definitely more work for the reader to follow a self-published author than a traditionally published author whose new book will appear on library shelves and on the bookstores' new release shelves more automatically. So this is yet one more challenge for self-published authors - and their fans - in the digital publishing era.
Just finished listening to Partials by Dan Wells on audiobook. First thing I want to say is that the narrator Julia Whelan did a great job and this is an enjoyable listen. She also narrates the second book - which I haven't listened to yet but am looking forward to it.
Yes, this is another teen dystopia involving a virus destroying the human race and the few stragglers that remain are fighting to find a way for the species to survive. New babies can't be born that are resistant to the virus so the humans are dying out. Meanwhile, they are fighting against two sets of enemies - the Voice (humans who disagree with the government on how to fight the virus) and the Partials (humanlike androids engineered for war who fought the humans almost to the brink of extinction 11 years previously).
Our heroine, Kira, is training as a medic and is desperate to find a way to cure the virus and save the human race. Her journey leads her to discover all kinds of dastardly secrets about what really happened in the past. We learn more about human history, Partial history, and the genetic problems faced by both races. There is a low key love triangle that doesn't overwhelm the narrative. Of course, Kira is torn between feelings for her human boyfriend and a Partial who happens to be engineered as a cute young soldier. But the settings, plot and action are the star players in this story. I enjoyed Wells' writing and will tune in for the next installment, although I felt that sometimes the descriptions were too lengthy and detracted from the pace, and there was a LOT of internal monologue from Kira's point of view which became repetitive after a while. Overall, great dystopian series. It's nothing really new and exciting but it is engaging and I want to know what happens next.
There's probably not much I can say about the first two books in Marie Lu's Legend trilogy that hasn't been said before (the third book - Champion - is forthcoming). But I've read some disappointing books lately and started thinking back over YA books I've really enjoyed and these are at the top of the list for many reasons. I read the first one in text format and listened to the second as an audiobook and it was one of those situations where the narrators really added to the drama and power of the text so I highly recommend it.
When I read the first book, I remember hearing that Lu had originally planned to re-write the Les Miserables story as a YA dystopia, and someone had suggested she change the gender of one of the main characters, allowing a romance to develop. So June is effectively the Javert character and Day is Valjean in the first book, Legend. Lu does a masterful job of contrasting philosophical positions on the best ways to run a dysfunctional society that has been decimated by war and plague - where geographical boundaries have been moved around and it's difficult to know who to trust. The two leads become unlikely allies and move on to the second part of their adventure in the second book.
I was prepared for Prodigy to be a let-down as it didn't have the skeleton of the Victor Hugo classic to give it shape. I was pleasantly surprised that I liked it possibly more than the first book. The characters' struggles are deeper in the second book and their alliances are tested almost to breaking point. The ending also seriously brought tears to my eyes. Both books have a lovely sense of closure although it's clear at the end of each that there are more issues to be resolved for the characters and their world, so plenty of space for the next book in line (but without making the reader feel like the author has left us hanging!)
I've said it before and I'll say it again, but one thing that separates a good book from a really great book is the development of the secondary characters. When the secondary characters are more than just props, but are real people whose issues shadow and contrast those of the main players, bringing their struggles into sharper relief, you have the makings of a really special story. And Lu is a master of making all her characters ring true and each of them contribute to the story in his or her own way. So for me the thing that makes this series a standout is not just that it's a clever dystopia with an unusual genesis, but the characters are so strong that they feel almost like real people that I can care about, down to the lowliest of minor players. I can't wait to read Champion.
Zach is going through a Bad Kitty phase. Here are his thoughts on Bad Kitty Meets the Baby ...
"Bad Kitty is alone at first and then the dog comes, but kitty thinks life becomes good again and then kitty thinks the baby is a dog and then kitty fights with the dog so much that they get a refrigerator stuck up in the tree [rambunctious giggling ensues]. And then strange kitty with all the other kitties do the cat Olympics and the baby is the winner and they all think that the baby is a cat, but bad kitty thinks that the baby is a dog. I like the book because I don't understand how they got a 200 pound refrigerator stuck up in the tree. Uncle Murray takes care of bad kitty and puppy and Uncle Murray gets stuck in the tree."
[OKAY - so all in all a lot of things getting stuck in a tree. What's not to like???]
I'm taking a jaunt into new adult romance today because I had long wanted to read Jamie McGuire's self-published Providence trilogy which she wrote before the Beautiful Disaster duology that raced up all the bestseller lists. What is SO interesting to me about comparing Providence to Beautiful Disaster is just how much McGuire has grown as an author between these projects. Even if new adult romance isn't your cup of tea, reading the two books back to back is a great exercise in watching the development of a new writer. Beautiful Disaster (and its companion novel Walking Disaster) have much more well-rounded characters, detailed conflict and higher stakes for the characters - and that's kind of a pun given what the two main characters do in their spare time. Providence is much flatter in those respects.
Providence is also new adult romance with a hint of angelology thrown in. But other than the paranormal elements in the early work, there are a lot of similarities between McGuire's two series. They are each aimed at the new adult market and involve characters who are starting college and trying to grow into their own identities and find love in the process. Providence, however, doesn't give us the same high stakes as the later work. While we are told by the characters that there's a lot at stake for them, we hardly ever see it rendered on the page except for in the very final section of the book. We also never feel that the heroes are really going to fail - they just seem too infallible.
In the Beautiful Disaster books, on the other hand, there is a very real sense of loss and conflict and the heroine and hero having to overcome obstacles in their past and their present to make a future together that works for them. In Providence, the hero is also kind of two dimensional even though he is obviously "other" and that should add a dimension. But he seems kind of one note - good looking, strong, and the heroine's protector, but there's not much else to him. Other than that he's a replacement father figure for her, it's hard to understand what there is to the relationship. Again, this is a sharp contrast to Beautiful Disaster, where both the hero and heroine are multi-layered and have somewhere to grow into their relationship. It's obvious that McGuire is a good writer and she's deservedly hit the big time in the new adult romance genre with her later work. So it's extremely interesting to contrast how she writes now with how she wrote a few years back. Not that her earlier work isn't good, but that her later work is so much stronger. Watching her development might give heart to those aspiring young adult and new adult authors out there that even if the first project isn't the best book ever written, it's possible to grow quickly and move on to new strengths as a writer if you stick with it and follow your dream. (And I am finishing the Providence trilogy at the moment - but so far am only half way through book 2.)
I downloaded the first Mythos Academy book - Touch of Frost - onto my Kindle a while back but didn't get around to reading it until this week. As a fan of Jennifer Estep's "Spider" assassin series (for grown-ups), I didn't know how I felt about her writing YA. A number of authors have transitioned very well from adult writing to YA. I mentioned previously I thought Kresley Cole did a particularly good job with Poison Princess. Estep, however, didn't quite hit the mark with this book, although I have to admit I haven't read anything else in this series and it might improve. The main problem for me was that this book was too derivative of other books. Estep draws from the current fascination with Greek mythology in YA (like the Percy Jackson series) as well as from her own "spider" series in recreating settings and character webs (no pun intended ... well, maybe). So in many ways the book isn't really "new". It's also a little repetitive in its themes. The lead character (Gwen Frost) has a mysterious gypsy background and is a bit of an outcast in her new school - the Mythos Academy, which is populated with descendants of Greek gods. She has to work out what her special powers are, solve mysteries and cope with her growing feelings for a Spartan descdant who seems to have the hots for her, but something is keeping him at a distance. It's a fun conceit, but the plot is pretty thin and there's a lot of going back and forth ruminating about how lonely it can be to be an outcast, how lonely it can be to be an orphan, how lonely it can be to be in the "in crowd" etc. And the mystery here isn't much of a mystery. It's a little "Scooby Doo" for my tastes. It does hint and more dramatic mysteries to come in later books, but it wasn't enough to really sustain my interest and the big reveal of the bad guy at the end wasn't much of a shock. As with all of Estep's work, the writing is smooth and easy to follow and the characters are relatable (if a little labored in this book), but I still prefer her writing for adults over this series so far.
In full disclosure, this is a kind of "half" review in the sense that I have read The Hunt by Andrew Fukuda, but have not yet read the second book in the series, The Prey. And it may be unfair to comment on the first book without having read the second. I'm going to get around to it but it's not on the top of my list at the moment. Not because The Hunt wasn't a good book. It was. It was fast-paced and eminently readable. It simply didn't grab me the same way as some other recent sci-fi dystopias for the YA audience have.
The Hunt might be described - and probably already has been - as a cross between Twilight (or at least some vampire story with evil vampires) and The Hunger Games. The twist is that the main society in this dystopia is comprised of vampires and they have a ritual hunt to kill a bunch of what they call hepers, but you can probably already guess what hepers really are. A group of young folks are selected to participate in the titular hunt and to kill or maim each other and all of the hepers who have been raised in captivity for the purposes of the event. Our hero - Gene - is a heper disguised as a vampire in order to survive in the society. His challenge is to make sure he hides the fact that he doesn't have super-strength, and that he does have body hair and body odor amongst other things. This is a great example of an author putting his hero up in a tree and throwing more and more rocks at him until the reader almost can't bear it. Gene is put into situations where it's increasingly difficult to hide what he is, and consistently comes up with clever ways around the problem. During the preparations for the hunt, the reader discovers a lot of mysterious things about the society itself and about Gene and his background in particular. The ending is satisfying enough in and of itself, although it is clearly a set-up for the sequel. And at least one poor character is left in an unenviable position which hopefully gets resolved in the next installment. So, yes, the book is well-written, fast paced with characters I can care about. But it's a little derivative and didn't excite me quite as much as some other YA dystopias in recent years.
I'm switching gears today from reviewing books to talking about the craft of writing, having read a bunch of craft books in the last few weeks. One of the standouts was Lisa Cron's Wired for Story. Cron has impeccable credentials and voluminous experience in the literary fiction field having worked as a writing teacher and an agent as well as a script consultant. She really knows what she is talking about and what will turn an agent off a manuscript within the first few pages.
I was a little concerned about this book at first because there have been a few attempts to apply "brain chemistry" theories to various activities, including teaching. I have been underwhelmed in the past by books about learning to be a better teacher through understanding how the brain works. Not that it's not a worthy pursuit, but a lot of the books on the topic are badly written. Not so with Cron's book on writing. While I could have done without the explanations of what the human brain responds to, and focused purely on Cron's specific advice to writers, the brain-theory stuff is not overdone. There's enough information about how humans process information to be useful without being overwhelming.
Cron writes with wit and humor so reading the book is a pleasure. It feels like being in a class where she is speaking directly to you. There are plenty of amusing anecdotes and asides that make you feel like she's right there in your living room - or wherever you happen to be reading. While the book isn't all that long (just over 200 pages), you should take your time reading it and focus on the information she's giving because each page is dripping with pearls of wisdom (I know, mixed metaphor and all that). Some craft books can be devoured in a single sitting but I would recommend taking time over this one and thinking about applying Cron's thoughts and techniques to your own writing. Maybe reading a chapter a day and mulling over it would be a good approach. There's not a lot of craft books that I go back to again and again, but I think this will be one of the ones I do.
I love to read books and chat with other authors about their work. Here's where I share my thoughts about writing (the craft and business/legal aspects of the writing life) and my interviews with other authors. Feel free to visit and add comments anytime!