Monday, September 30, 2013

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Instant Book Turn-Offs

"Top Ten Tuesday" is a weekly countdown meme, hosted by the Broke and the Bookish

Way back in July, we counted down ten of the ickiest, stickiest and most troublesome types of books that will make us immediately throw them back on the shelf (and I got a little trouble for my troubles; check out my response in this recent discussion about the thriller genre!). 

Today, however, we're talking about a different kind of turn-off: the kind that can creep up in the middle of a book, strikes without warning, and leaves you reeling, or just grate on your subconscious so thoroughly that by the end of it, you're confident you lost a couple of brain cells. These unhappy surprises can make or break a book, depending on the situation... and here are our top offenders, helpfully divided into two sections: "Making It Tough" and "Spoiler Alert"! 


1. Inaccurate or Unrealistic Portrayal of Time Period
If you're going to go through the trouble of setting your novel within the specific context of a singular time period, then you'd better well make sure that you've got it down pat. Make it recognizable and correct as that temporal setting, or don't even bother. 

2. Unnecessary Love-Triangle Flip-Floppery
Love triangles themselves are a sticky subject with me, though they can be done properly (see: Throne of Glass, S.J. Maas). However, characteristic of a poorly-established romance and a dull-witted triangle-point-character, sometimes people have a decision making process that can swing more wildly than a kid at his first T-ball practice. Pick someone, and stick to them... that's the point of love, dummy. 

3. Over-Confidence in Personal Vocabulary
If you've ever been an English major, you know the kind. Someone whose youthful zeal for writing combines with an ambitious drive for recognition, and results in the kind of multi-syllabic mumbo-jumbo that can stop an argument in its tracks by sheer confusion. Believe me, I like fun, weird words, too, but I'm not going to be the one to name my kids Merriam and Webster. Making writing deliberately confusing, just so you can show off that you memorized the dictionary, awards you no points. 

4. Epistolary-Style or Diary-Oriented Novels 
Okay, so maybe this one is just me: I hate novels where a specific attention must be placed on singular or multiple narrators, who are sometimes speaking at different times, in different places. It just gets distracting for me, and it's easy to lose sight of the story itself. It's becoming more popular to integrate text message and IM conversations to the narrative, now, as well, which makes me question, why can't you just make it dialogue? To me, it screams of an attempt at making things interesting, which it doesn't. 

5. The Disingenuity Disease
disingenuous (adj): to not be truly honest or sincere, giving the false appearance of being candorous. Present in basically every novel, everywhere, where love and relationships are involved, or someone's turning into a monster, this disease is one where the characters find themselves being completely incapable of telling the truth, even to the detriment of others involved. If you're actually turning into a zombie, best stop hiding it, and just let someone know. Seriously. 


6. Spoiler Alert: You're Related! (Or Not!)  
Luke, I'm your father. But more importantly, that hottie Leia you were hitting on, is actually your sister. Whereas this grand reveal used to hold a lot of literary clout, it has become a lazy means of adding interpersonal intrigue, and the build-up of presumed sexual tension that took place beforehand just leaves a bad taste in our mouths. 

7. Spoiler Alert: I'm Not Dead Yet! 
From Aladdin to the Fairly OddParents, even magical creatures know that bringing back bodies is a big no-no. And yet, authors place themselves above these rules. Death loses its finality and bravado when you make it optional. Voldemort was so scared of it, that he imprisoned his soul in seven different places. Death is scary stuff, and you don't get to beat it in a fight. 

8. Spoiler Alert: And Then The Nice Guy is... Not So Nice. 
Typified by authors whose complexity of character construction rivals that of a Duplo Lego set, the act of a stereotypical "nice guy," "best friend," or "right-hand man" turning rogue at a critical moment in the narrative just speaks to me of faulty character dimension. If we can't see shadows of evil or motivation towards such earlier on, then you're just not building a realistic enough cast. 

9. Spoiler Alert: Oh Yeah, That Thing That You Need? It's in the Other Place. 
Most often found in ill-crafted quest-oriented novels, this trope builds anticipation and plot structure around the idea that once our protagonists make it to this one specified location, a climactic amount of action will take place. However, when the journey comes to an end, only to have it revealed that the real fight lay somewhere else, that trust and tension built up with the author to lead you to the payoff completely disappears, and now, it's just back to more mindless trudging. 

10. Spoiler Alert: Watch Out for That Cliff! 
Don't you just hate it when your book ends with a 

What's Your Top Ten? 

Coming Attractions: October

{Rejoining my Sigma Kappas just in time to take part in the Seattle Walk to End Alz; Recharging from Recruitment with a great best friend date at Rainforest Cafe; Saying hello to fall with a warm cup of tea and some sweet treats} 

After all the zaniness that was September over here in the Greek Community, it looks like life is finally starting to settle down here at the University of Washington. Seattle weather is getting gray and muddled, just as it should be, sweater + boot combos are once again the student fashion de rigueur, and the biggest difficulty I'm going to be having this Quarter is deciding which of my classes is my favorite. Everything is turning out just fine

Still, that doesn't mean that the advent of the school year isn't bringing its own special brand of chaos back my way. We're back to professor-prescribed reading and writing, sorority functions, leadership opportunities, and applying to majors... not to mention College Fashion and making sure my family back in Tacoma hears from me every once in a while. I've forgotten how difficult finding time to read has always been during the school year! However, I can assure you that I'm trying my best. In fact, here's some of what I've got planned for the coming month of October: 
  • Two great College Fashion link ups: a classic literary masterpiece that may surprise you, perfect for the blustery weather, as well as a favorite terrifying tale, perfect for the upcoming Halloween season! 
  • A rundown of some of my favorite seasonal reading for autumn, with my Fall Favorites list!
  • Indisputable truth that, just like our apples, Washingtonian mystery writers are always the sweeter choice! (I promise, it was worth the wait.) 
  • Not to mention more "Top Ten Tuesdays" (including one tomorrow!), breaking news in book world, and new reviews for some cool reads keeping me cozy in the chilly fall weather! 
So don't worry. Once I manage to extricate myself from this mountain of homework that's already beginning to pile up, I'll make sure to update the blog every once in a while! 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

College Fashion Link Up: The Importance of Being Earnest

When I was trying to brainstorm a good source of inspiration to use for this week's College Fashion "Looks from Books" column, I was having a hard time coming up with an adequate idea. See, I officially started the school year, on the same day the post would come out, and I wanted something that would kick things off right.

In the end, I didn't even end up choosing a novel... instead, I chose a play. I chose one of the wittiest authors I know, with one of the most well-known comedic works I know, because if I'm going to try and make this school year a good time, best start it off laughing. I chose Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, a Trivial Comedy for Serious People.

It's one of my favorites, because of the comedic bent of not only the characters, but of the style of writing. Even reading things like the cadence and timing of the lines is impeccable, and seemingly unimportant elements like implied stage direction make me laugh. It's overall hilarity just strikes a chord in me, I guess, and I don't know why... maybe it's just the fact that late 19th century love shenanigans make me giggle. (And if you haven't seen the 2002 film adaptation, starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, and Dame Judi Dench, you're missing out).

The satirical nature of the play makes it one of my favorites, as well. The Victorian era is known for its rigid social expectations and propensity for preserving tradition, for many reasons, including as a means of retaining order despite the change wrought by fluctuating class structures in Europe (due to the rising middle class with the advent of Industrialization). So all of this attempt at control was especially allied with interpersonal relations, and marriage - though increasingly more commonly made by choice, rather than arrangement - was expected as a familial and civic duty. In short, love and marriage was serious... and with The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde made a fool of the notion that the solemnity surrounding the idea of "love" was anything other than a silly business.

The social circles that operated around 19th century theater also interest me a lot, simply because of the unique strata in which they placed the arts. It was strictly a rich-people business, and while holding a position as an actor or a set designer would shortly become a respectable and career-building occupation in the coming century, the writers of the plays themselves enjoyed an immense amount of celebrity, since it was also great literature that was touted as a vital art form. Because of the wealthy people who were able to attend these events, the writers were drafted with the enormous task of presenting a "reality" within the scope of the play, that would not only appeal to, but would also seem relatable, to their opulent audience. This included costuming and wardrobe, because no matter how low-budget the theater, they were trying to impress some high-society viewers. This incredible social tension, serving as quality control of the fashionable presentation of the plays themselves, lends a unique intrigue to how 19th-century theaters operated.

Oscar Wilde's a pretty cool writer, and who knows? Maybe I'll get to read some more of his work in the coming school year. All I know, is that I'm happy to start it out with a smile.

Go on over to my Importance of Being Earnest "Looks from Books" post on College Fashion right now! Here's a sneak preview at one of my favorite outfits, based on the play's split setting of London and Hertfordshire estate:
Tell me what you think! 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thrillers and Killers: A Genre Discussion

In a Top Ten Tuesday post from a while ago, I discussed how I wasn't a fan of thriller novels.

I got a little backlash for it: for instance, my Dad said that it was that kind of attitude that would cause me to miss out on some really good authors (though, to be honest, I think he considers it his personal life goal to get me to read Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, who I dismissed for their connection to the cringe-inducing topic of drug use). He said I should take a second look at those genres I was so quick to dismiss.

However, the true catalyst for this further bookshelf exploration came when, in an additional attempt to sway my opinion, a good friend challenged my distaste for thrillers, in particular, and tasked me with reading a book from one of his favorite authors, Tom Clancy. Suddenly confronted with a genre with which I haven't had much success, I entered into a deeper evaluation, of not only my personal reader-response, but what exactly about this genre makes these kinds of books so popular, anyways.


First, let me explain what about these thriller novels ostracized a reader like me so quickly in the beginning. To me, I associate thrillers with the bold black-and-red, brick-shaped novels sold slightly above the candy bars at the end of the checkout line at QFC. They populated my dad's bookshelves in the den of our house, and he told me I couldn't read them until I was much older. When I finally was old enough to read them, I finally understood why this specific set of books was held off limits for so long.

They were full of hurting people. It's not a topic I love to read about. There were violent men toting guns and lacking morals, there were helpless prostitutes getting killed on every dark street corner, and there were druggies who shivered and shook on stoops in the night only to be used as mules, enslaved by those who produced the very drugs that ensnared them.  In fact, a lot of the same reasons I didn't like about thriller novels are other topics that I listed disliking in that same Top Ten Tuesday post, or essentially, anything that was involved in Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (I actually regret having read that book, which isn't something I say, ever).

In terms of the foundation of the storytelling itself, my experience with thrillers was that they primarily sacrificed construction for the sake of action. They were mass-produced, ready-made worlds occupied by the standard stock characters and tropes, with questionable motivation and murky back stories, left unexplained at the expense of story integrity, just so they could fit in one more car chase, one more dead hit man, one more head-whipping change of direction.

And, let's face it: I've never felt that I ever was the ideal demographic for the majority of this kind of writing. I'm a nineteen-year-old college girl... tragic things befall people like me in these kinds of books. Who wants to read about stuff like that?


Now, I'm not saying I entirely dislike them. There's definitely some aspects of the novel that are specifically geared towards the sort of things I really enjoy. 

For instance, in between the sniper shooters and Big-Brother-esque organizations, and drug mules, and swooning, useless female counterparts, there's a semblance of the grand romantic pattern. The underdog who proves himself, the man who recovers from immense tragedy to fight the battle anew, the knight in rusty armor: he's the kind of guy to be found saving the world in thriller novels. Saviors and heroes, hope and triumph... there's dragons to slay, and a damsel to save. It's not an exact match, but there's enough comparable material that I can say that there's a correlation between the two writing forms, of the thriller and the fantasy. 

And the same writing elements that make fantasy such a successful genre, are here as well: the foundation of fantasy isn't the unbelievable nature of magic and mayhem, but the fact that humanity can be transposed into such a radically different reality. We didn't love Harry Potter because he was a wizard, we loved him because he was, in most ways, just like us, but placed in such amazing and different circumstances. Similarly, we don't love the thriller hero just because he can kick butt and take names like no one we've seen before, but because of what motivates him to do so: love, honor, sense of civic pride and familial duty, the heart of gold. The world the thriller operates in is gritty and real, to be sure, but it is simultaneously exaggerated and extravagant... a world wholly unreal to us, but carrying elements that are completely real and relatable, as well.


The interesting thing is, there's more to thrillers than just the standard setup and familiar tropes I found so two-dimensional... there's a lot that has changed, and is changing, in this genre.

For instance, thrillers can still be found in the checkout lines of supermarkets, but that says a lot more about the dedication of their fan base than the quality of their components. They are still considered a "mainstream" material, but that's because their fan following is singularly immense. This fan dedication serves as quality control... if they don't like something, then they're going to tell the author exactly how they feel and what they think. The high standard these fans hold the books to ensure that they are constantly upheld to the status at which they were originally read. No one's allowed to be lazy when you've got two million copies to move on your first printing.

Similarly, those same tropes that I held to be true, aren't the only viewpoint in the thriller genre. "Big, strong man saves hopeless girl while shooting some things and blowing up others" isn't the only premise that drives these books. Case in point: Sue Grafton's Alphabet series, starring Kinsey Mallone, has entranced readers from A through W (W is for Wasted is the most recent title), and her heroine isn't the only cool girl on the block. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, which started off with One for the Money in 1994, has amassed a massive following as well (and while I'm still not a fan of this series, I am, however, a huge fan of absolutely terrible Katherine Heigl movies).

It's getting pretty meta out there, too. For instance, fans of Castle on ABC have been treated to the works of the TV show's lead character, the fictional author, Richard Castle, through the Nikki Heat novels Heat Wave, Naked Heat, Heat Rises, and Frozen Heat, with a fifth novel, Deadly Heat, set to be released this year. The novels are published in the world of the show, and the lead character of the novel is based off of Castle's love interest, Kate Beckett. The actual, "real life" author of the novels is a closely-gaurded secret, though fans of the show have their own guesses: James Patterson, Micheal Connelly, and Dennis Lehane have all had cameos on the show as friends of Castle's. And the books are held to similar caliber as the works for which those men are responsible.


In the end, I'm left to collect my own opinion on the matter. They may not make it to the top of my To-Be-Read list, but like the Agatha Christie mystery novels I've been collecting since I was in the sixth grade, these are novels that definitely belong on people's bookshelves.

My distaste for some of the rougher elements of the genre is simply similar to why I don't like watching CSI, NCIS, or most other procedural crime dramas on TV. They just aren't what I'm interested in. But that doesn't mean that there aren't elements of the genre that do actually interest me. In fact, there's a couple of books in the genre that I feel are especially worth reading, whether you're a fan of it, or not:
The Firm, John Grisham, which made me kind of want to be a lawyer, for at least five seconds in my sophomore year of high school.
Without Remorse, Tom Clancy, which reminded me of why some of my friends like Homeland so much.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn, a New York Times best seller that topped seemingly everyone's summer TBR list.
and The Cuckoo's Calling, J. K. Rowling, which justified my use of Harry Potter as a reference earlier in this post.

So, hopefully, my Dad and my friend feel at least a little bit justified. They were right: there are thrillers out there, that are actually really cool, and that I think I'd enjoy. And, let's be honest, they're probably the only people who made it all the way through this mountain of writing. Thank you Dad and Steve. :) 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Dish Best Served Burnt

With the phenomenal success of the Pretty Little Liars series, it's no surprise that more teen dramas set in idyllic, exclusive neighborhoods would creep up. But after watching Aria, Spencer, Hannah, and Emily tracking down the vengeful saboteur in their own lives, it's nice to see some ladies whipping up a cold dish of revenge in their own Home Ec classes. Here comes Burn for Burn, from Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian.

The novel (first in a series, with the sequel, Fire with Fire, having been released earlier this year) follows Lillia, a popular and wealthy high-school student, with ambivalent feelings about the people she associates with; Lillia's childhood best friend, Kat, who resents how quickly she was forgotten, and is willing to send a former friend down in flames for what she's done; and Mary, a former fat kid who's slimmed down, and is prepared to stand up to the boy who made her life hell. Together, these three girls are going to bring down the cool kids... even though a dish best served cold, just might end up burning them back.

I usually hate books with split character narration, because they tend to end up being ineffectual at drawing differences in the personality and tone of the individual narrator's style, and simply use a quick character-shift to utilize blank narrative space for a cover for further drama (Yes, I realize that this can come off as a generalization, but this is something I'm serious about!). However, that was not the case in Burn for Burn: Lillia, Mary, and Kat all had their specific voices in the telling of the story, as well as additional insight into the interactions and motivations of the other characters. 

It wasn't just that the three main characters were compelling and interesting, either: each of the foundational characters were important as well, particularly through the gradual revelation of each's back story, which was incredibly effective. The community of people who built up Jar Island were fresh and interesting, even with their flaws.I need to make a distinct delineation, however: some of these characters, especially the periphery of the action present in the story, were still stock. Even some of the key antagonists came off as stock. They just were presented so in a new way, and their respective background stories brought additional depth, making them all that more compelling.

My absolute favorite character trait was the glimpses of paranormal ability in one of the main three girls. This is how paranormal fiction should work, with an ultra-suspenseful build-up, bits and pieces gradually displayed over a long period of time, with drama taking the front seat to any powers themselves (paranormal abilities are usually the result of additional emotional baggage, anyways; doesn't it make more sense that they are the more important of the two?).

The drama and suspense came on strong in this piece of YA. I'd even hazard a boast that I like it more than the Pretty Little Liars series, simply because of it's efficient strategies of revealing both back story and current plot development to build simultaneous tension, its engaging characters and believable-yet-mildly-utopian setting, and its general flawless execution of writing style. I just haven't seen much YA written this well before, especially with elements of paranormal fiction thrown in.

And to be honest, that cover is just one million kinds of gorgeous.

For YA fans interested in a new take on old genres, with unexpected twists, a lot of heart, and plenty of high school intrigue, this is a great note to start the school year on!

Friday, September 6, 2013

God Help the Girl

There's a distinct difference between "historical fiction" and "period fiction," at least in my mind. "Historical fiction" deals more with ties to the direct historical elements within the context of known chronological time (ie. having a book told from the point of view of a historically-iconic persona, or involved in important historical events), like I just read in Katherine Longshore's Gilt and Tarnish (which I just finished and will be talking about soon!). "Period fiction," however, deals more within conjunction to a time period, without retaining more concrete ties to fact, more than fiction, like The Girl Is Murder series from Kathryn Miller Haines. 

The books follow fifteen-year-old Iris Anderson, as she assists her father in his ace private eye detective business, during the early years of World War II. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor left her father without a leg, and her mother's suicide left her family without any support system, Iris is forced to move from the Upper East Side to the Lower, from a posh public school to P.S. 108, and that's only the start of her troubles.Through her search for clues, she breaks out of the prim and proper, and into a world filled not only the cheating husbands her father tails, but murderers, Nazis, and the seedy underworld of '40s New York. 

There's an additional difference between "historical" and "period" fiction on the part of the reader, one that was highlighted in this series. While in historical fiction, you have to level some kind of an assumption that the author has done their research (lest they incur the wrath of history-nerd readers who actually know what they should be reading about), with period fiction, there is no such reassurance that we won't wind up with anything anachronistic or out-of-place. For a while, this series worried me, being that the 1940s and wartime aren't really discussed outside of the American Girl canon of novels (Molly, my favorite). 

That unique element of the time period is what initially drew me to the novel, being that the '30s and '40s were some of the most interesting periods in American History to me, and it was such a departure from the influx of Roaring '20s YA we've been seeing recently. I feel that the time period was halfheartedly established, and there should have been a little more of an ambiance and mood to the novel. You are, after all, talking about an iconic stock character: the hard-boiled, fast-talking 1940s ace detective, only transplanted into the body of a high school girl. The avenues for successfully pursuing this type of feel would be either making it into that hyper-stylized noir, or an ultra-realistic period drama. Instead, what we mostly got were kitschy slang phrases bantered around with few descriptions of setting, appearance, etc. and little-to-no distinct style. 

The plot was a little on the murky side, as well. Especially in The Girl is Trouble, where the unanswered questions - on both the part of the narrator, and the reader - came aplenty. In some ways, this was rightfully so, because the mystery was one of the puzzle-like variety; unfortunately, not like the shiny, well-fitted, just-out-the-box variety, but like the kind you find in quaint, off-the-beaten-path cafes with low-lighting and spaced-out tables, that usually have half the board missing and the rest miserably chewed up by a long-gone dog. It was old and worn with antiquated plot points, it was holey with questions that were answered by convenience, it was unnecessarily confusing due to the fact that Iris just wouldn't stop jumping to conclusions, and at the end of it all, I still didn't know entirely what I was looking at. It was only when told what I was supposed to be seeing - courtesy of a wrap-up on the part of Iris, her father, and her Uncle Adam (also a detective) - that I got the picture. 

(I consider the first in the series to be much, much better, so I'm tempted to say that this is just a part of the natural "sophomore novel slump," but I don't know.) 

I appreciated the characters, which all had their own individual flaws and functions, and weren't pure products of stock. They didn't act like much less than stock characters - ie. they never did anything that unexpected, their actions were pretty predictable - but at least they all had definable, distinct, personalities and traits that made them unique. Also, the stakes were higher and the suspense more forceful than would be expected, as well, and I love, love, love fast-moving plots in YA. These were what the series did really right, and I appreciated that. 

For fans of 1940s detective movies, wartime intrigue, and simplified story-telling that's big on suspense, read this book. But if you're a mystery enthusiast with a good knowledge of how the game works, without patience in waiting out less-than-efficient story lines, maybe sit this one out. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Coming Attractions: September

{Media coverage for the Inaugural Daffodil Festival Military Parade, in which I was all-too-happy to participate; a pic of the gorgeous Seattle Center fountain during a day trip; Scaring up some good fun, as Pierce County Libraries took over the Point Defiance Zoo, to celebrate the culmination of their summer reading challenge} 

It's almost hard for me to believe, that today, I'm following the yellow brick road all the way back to the Emerald City, when it feels like I've only just remembered that there's no place like home. Wizard of Oz references aside, I really am feeling some early-onset nostalgia for my beautiful Tacoma, my family, my hometown friends (and Festival, of course). I love my home - and my hometown, too - and even the excitement of heading back to my friends at my second home, the Sigma Kappa Castle at UW, isn't cutting it right now.

Thankfully, there won't be much time for moping. Starting now, I'm staring down the barrel of three weeks of frenetic activity - from Work Week (preparing for Panhellenic Recruitment), to Panhellenic Recruitment, to Bid Week (recovery period after Panhellenic Recruitment) - and I'll barely have time to remember my own name, regardless of my home address. Subsequently, you may see posts slowing down a bit during this period of time. However, that doesn't mean that I don't have anything already lined up for you while I'm gone, including...
  • A College Fashion article link-up, with a hilarious, sexy recent release, perfect for the college girl
  • Tips on how to style and shape a condensed, but no less cute, dorm room bookshelf
  • Indisputable truth that, just like our apples, Washingtonian mystery writers are always the sweeter choice! 
  • Not to mention more "Top Ten Tuesdays," breaking news in book world, and new reviews for some of the coolest reads that packed my summer schedule! 
So, just because I'm gone, it doesn't mean that you won't be thinking about me. I'd like to think that the same could be said for me in Tacoma.