Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review: The First Book of Demons, by Raquel Dove

            At long last, some decent YA paranormal romance comes my way. This week’s book was The First Book of Demons, by Raquel Dove. As you might have guessed, it’s the first book in a series about demons. Full of demons, magic, and awkward teenage sex, this story builds an engaging world and a romance worth cheering for. While the plot could have used a little more foreshadowing and emphasis on the most important moment, The First Book of Demons—while no great work of literature—is engaging enough to keep the reader reading, even when it means not reading the two papers I was assigned for my laboratory course today. Oh, well, it was worth it.
Digging the fonts. And the fangs.
             We begin meeting the beautiful and clumsy Alexandra, a strong willed heroine with curiously absent parents, who confides everything in her best friend, Sam. When her aunt is brutally murdered, she finds herself without any protection—and the forces that killed her aunt are now after her. The magical dagger she inherited from her aunt proves the key to entering the realm of the demons . . . and falling straight into the arms of the handsome demon prince Balthazar.  

            Balthazar has some big problems. His father’s just been assassinated and he’s got to ascend to the throne of the Devas. To do this, he’ll have to uncover the traitors in his court, marry a princess . . . and an ancient demon sage tells him he’ll also need a human. Happily, Alex turns up a few short chapters later. The two can’t stand each other at first, but, c’mon, we can all tell the attraction is there. Sure, Balthazar’s a bit of an asshole—hey, a demonic sultan has to have a harem full of concubines, right—but I found this romance to be one worth rooting for. Can Balthazar secure his father’s throne? Will Alex ever loose her virginity? It’s a fun ride, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the dialogue.

            And now I’m going to rip a little. The amount of ripping is not proportional to my enjoyment of the book. 

            My big problem was with the flow of the plot. Storylines appear and disappear. We see Alex’s aunt die, but she’s sad for a while and then the sadness goes away, even though it’s just been a few weeks. Her missing parents are mentioned in the beginning and at the end, but we don’t see Alex really think about them too much. Alex and Balthazar go on a quest to find magical objects . . . and yet the object attained as a result of said adventure has no effect on the climax. There’s a demon king threatening to invade Balthazar’s land, but we don’t see him, any of his people, and the threat doesn’t feel real and immediate.
            The story switches between antagonists—usurpers in the palace trying to claim Balthazar’s throne, enemy kingdoms who’ll declare war if Balthazar doesn’t mate with the king’s daughter, a mysterious cult of mysterious mages. Personally, I think it would have been better if it had focused on only one antagonist, with another threat maybe lurking in the background. I get that it’s a series, but every installment in a series—especially the first book—should have a self-contained arc. As it was, I wasn’t sure who the final villain would be.

            When the evil plan was revealed, I didn’t have an ‘aha’ moment—a moment where all the clues came together and I realized that this evil conspiracy had been hidden in plain sight all along. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the bad guys weren’t foreshadowed, but Alex doesn’t really have an emotional connection with them. If Alex had known about them and seen their actions throughout the story, they would be much stronger villains. Instead, they only come into direct conflict with the main characters at the end.
            High: Originality. I liked the idea of a world where humans were considered magical creatures. Readability. The tone is very good. It feels professional and well-edited. Dialogue. It’s very snappy and witty. Character creation. Balthazar’s a great character, as far as morally ambiguous characters go. Tone. This story feels professionally edited.

            Low: Lack of scenery description. Mountains and forests are mentioned in certain places, but we never get a picture painted of what they really look like. Do they look different than those in our world? I feel like I don’t have enough information to visualize these places. Rips on Twilight. I feel like every YA paranormal romance has to include a scene where a clueless human mentions something in Twilight and the savvy supernatural laughs at them—but you can’t make fun of a book where a girl falls in love with a vampire in a book where a girl falls in love with a demon. Use of third person omni POV. This is just a pet peeve. Name similarity. We’ve got an Ashdad, an Alex, an Azira, an Adira, and an Aelek. Ack!

Did I like this story? Yes. Would I read it again? Sure. Would I recommend it to people who like YA paranormal romance? Yes. My rating? As a YA paranormal romance, four and a half stars out of five. As a novel, three and a half stars.

--Liz Ellor, O43

You can download The First Book of Demons here

Saturday, October 27, 2012

How to Dress for your First Halloween at College

As anyone who's ever sat through The Dark Knight Rises with me knows, I'm a big fan of Catwoman. So when Halloween came around, I naturally decide to dress like Catwoman. I get my black spandex, my ears, make a utility belt out of duct tape, and I'm good to go.

One problem. It turns out Halloween in college is really different from Halloween at home, There's quite a good deal more alcohol, for one. For another, the costumes are very, very different. I think it might just be a style thing. I'm cool with that. Every little place has its own idiosyncrasy for Halloween costumes. Diversity is a wonderful thing.

I just had no clue how horribly diverse these costumes could be.

Let's start with a simple one: the non-costume. This is the costume about half the people will wear to your costume party. They will sheepishly laugh and say things like, 'yeah, I really didn't have time to make a costume' or 'this is my costume. It's ironic.' What they really mean is 'I hate Halloween. You're still dressing up? What are you, five?' These are the people who think Halloween is a fascist plot to control the mindless hordes into consuming the pacifying candy of the Great Capitalist Lie. Unfortunately, they can't say it out loud, as they're currently at a Halloween party and that would mean pissing off the person who invited them, who's probably wondering why their friend is such a party pooper.

Next, we've got the 'animal' costumes. I think we've all seen that scene in Mean Girls where Lindsay Lohan walks into the Halloween party and all the girls are dressed in leotards with animal ears on their heads. Look, if you want to dress like a slut, then just tell everyone you're dressed like a slut.  Now, I'm a pretty easygoing person. I don't particularly care what you wear. But I'm also a Biology major, and I'm pretty sure that real animals don't wear stilettos or makeup.

Also, do you really want to attract boys who are attracted to raccoons?

The third type is the half-assed ironic costume. This is the person who tapes the piece of paper to their shirt that says something they heard on the news. I'm expecting to see a bunch of 'horses' and 'bayonets' this year after Obama joked about it in the debate--not people dressed like actual horses and bayonets, because that takes effort, but people with 'horse' and 'bayonet' written on pieces of notebook paper that they've taped to their chest. What they're trying to say is 'look at me, I understand politics'. What I see is 'I spend six hours setting up for this party and I really didn't feel like dressing up, but I'm the host and I had to'.

Then there's the costume bought in five minutes at Target. This person knew they were going to a party, so they went to target and dropped twenty bucks on a pre-made costume. They account for about one percent of the costumes I've seen on campus, which is surprising  since it seems like this is a good way to pick a costume.

Always a favorite, the costume made from red solo cups and flattened cans of PBR grows in popularity as the night goes on.

And last but not least, there's the awkward freshman costume. This is what you wear when your cool upperclassmen friends have invited you to a party in Collegetown. You spend half an hour building a belt out of duct tape and styling your hair to look like Anne Hathaway, convince your two roommates to dress up and assemble costumes from scratch by going through their wardrobes, and parade down to Collegetown. On the way, you realize no one else is in costume and in fact everyone else is staring at you funny. On the way back, you realize it's just because you walked over at nine PM and people in Collegetown happen to be nocturnal.

Happy Halloween, everybody!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

NEW Submission Rules and Tips

Note: I'm taking a break from reviewing until September, when I return to school. If you want to contact me, please email me around September first, when I'm cleaning out my queue.

New submission rules: Send me an email at with the information for your book, including a link to where I can download it. Kindle books preferred. Tips: I'd appreciate it if you become a follower of my blog and post some comments on my previous reviews. If I review your book, I would very much appreciate if you'd put a link to that review on your website or blog. 

Thank you all in advance,

Book Review: Armageddon Conspiracy, by John Thompson

            Well, it’s review number thirteen and I just got lucky. This week, I dove into the world of John Thompson’s Armageddon Conspiracy—a high-paced thriller jam-packed with action and intrigue, wrapped up in a knot of strong character development and sealed with a bomb. This story hits the ground running and never stops. Generally, this is the part of the intro paragraph where I point out the book’s flaws, but I can’t think of anything to put here.

Now this is a cover
             Armageddon Conspiracy starts with a bang as a bunch of bombs detonate in a New York subway system. The mysterious American who nervously caused the detonation retreats to his sanctuary where he engages in a little light snake-handling. He’s none other than Prescott Biddle, a Wall Street billionaire whose ‘god-given’ gift to predict the market has apparently caught the attention of the FBI.

            Our hero, Brent Lucas, is cajoled into going undercover at Biddle’s firm—the aptly named Genesis Advisors—to ferret out insider trading. What he finds is a whole lot worse. Apparently, Biddle believes it’s his Christian duty to bring about Armageddon. He’s working with a terrorist organization known as the Wahaddi Brotherhood in a plot to smuggle missiles into New York and then assassinate the president. But there’s a lot of laws they have to break to cover their tracks—and little does Brent know he’s been set up to take the fall. Soon Brent, his ex-girlfriend, and his cranky uncle are all caught up in a race against time to find the missiles and stop Biddle before his plan comes to fruition.

            Two things that really stood out to me in this story were the strong supporting characters and well edited prose. The interactions between Abu Sayeed—the Middle Eastern terrorist—and Biddle manage to be darkly humorous and extremely entertaining, and Abu Sayeed is so well written you almost want him to succeed. FBI agent Ann Jenkins, who’s picked the wrong week to quit smoking, acts as a grounding rod for the story even as things spiral out of control around her. Brent, the main character, does have a few moments of bland heroism, but otherwise I found his struggle to balance his desires to earn money and to have a fulfilling career pretty compelling.

            Highs: Establishing tension. Right off the bat, we’ve got a ton of compelling questions to ask—and we really want to see them answered. Supporting characters. As mentioned above, they’re both strong and interesting. The twists. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there were some moments that made my jaw drop. Use of POV. The narrative contains several different POVs, but all fit together well.

            Low: Character names. Introduces two characters named Fred in a row, and Brent and Biddle look pretty similar at a glance. Technical sex talk. What’s a mons verenis? Do I have one? Continuity issues. We see a major bomb attack in the prologue, hear Brent mention that one hundred people died in an attack the year before, but when Ann Jenkins requests more manpower for her division, she’s turned down because no major terrorist attack has occurred since 9/11. Do one hundred New Yorkers getting blown up in the subway count as a terrorist attack, or did the NYPD write it off as a mugging gone wrong?

Did I like this story? Hell yeah! Would I read it again? Yes. Would I recommend it to people who like thrillers? Of course. My rating? As a thriller, five stars out of five. As a novel . . . five stars. Looks like I found my first perfect ten.

--Liz Ellor, O43

You can purchase Armageddon Conspiracy here

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Top Five Biggest Mistakes of Self-Publishing and Soliciting Reviews

So I've read enough books now to start assembling a decent, if limited, list of things I've found tend to hold back works of self-published fiction. More will be added as it comes to mind.

       Not publishing on Amazon. Seriously, sites like Smashwords or Authonomy can be great resources, but not posting on Amazon is like shooting yourself in the foot. Sales require exposure and exposure requires you taking advantage of the tools at your disposal. Seriously--the biggest online retailer of ebooks will feature your work. There is no reason in the world why you wouldn't take advantage of this. Maybe you're trying to protest Amazon's stranglehold on the industry, which is a noble gesture--but if a big name publisher came along and offered you a six-figure advance on your next book, which would be sold all over the world--including on Amazon, you'd jump on it. Anyone would. So please, put your book on the Kindle Store. It takes half an hour.

       Underselling. I've had people send me emails advertising an 'archetypal' fantasty novel or saying 'It's a YA paranormal romance . . . like there aren't too many of those, right?" What are these people doing? Trying to tempt me into reading their book by lowering my expectations right off the bat? In the words of one of my favorite authors, "only a fool humbles himself when the world is so full of men eager to do that job for him" (props to anyone who can ID this quote!). You might think you're just being cool about your aspirations--"Yeah,  I know I wrote a book about vampires screwing each other. Like that hasn't been done before. Whatever." But it comes off like you're embarrassed of your own design. If the author isn't a fan of their own work, why should anyone else read it?

       Third person omnipotent voice. This is more of a pet peeve, but I've never seen any author do it well. I'm not talking about a third person viewpoint with a different narrator each chapter, but I hate it when authors jump from POV to POV without indicating the person has changed. If we see a minor character's innermost thoughts establish a little bit of exposition and we don't see that person's thoughts when it's really important we see them, we're going to wonder why. Third person omni takes us out of a character's viewpoint and forces us to see what the author sees. It jolts us out of the character's thoughts, distorting our internal rhythm. If you want to use multiple POVs, put them in different chapters or use line breaks to indicate POV switching. Switching without warning is annoying.

       Cover design. I've seen some horrible covers in my time. It's never good when an author whips out Microsoft Paint to try and design something marketable, but I've seen covers that are just as bad from professional artists. Here's what you should do: email the nearest college that offers a graphic design program and advertise that you're looking for an artist to design a book cover. Request that all artists show a portfolio of at least three pieces they've designed themselves. In the meantime, go to your bookstore and look at the section where your book would be shelved. Look at the covers. Pick the artist whose portfolio closest fits that style and send them links to the   covers of other books in that genre. Anyone who charges over two hundred dollars is charging you too much.

       Use of Third Person. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten emails saying " 'XX' is an accomplished author who's won the X prize for Short Fiction at the X-town literary festival". If you're a representative of the author, why not say "As the representative of 'XX', I, 'YY' think this book would be a good fit for your blog'? My worst fear that this is really just the author writing in third person to make me think they have 'people'. I don't care if you have people. I care if you sound like you have some strange mental disorder. Also, I can tell if you wrote the bio on your Amazon page yourself--because if you wrote it in the third person, you're going to sound like a lunatic. Look at this excerpt from the Amazon page of Scott Colby, whose book Shotgun I genuinely enjoyed.
       'Scott Colby has been writing for a looooooooooong time. It started back in fourth grade, when Scott got really bored in class and decided to entertain himself by writing ten page epics about he and his friends. He soon got caught and was forced to read his stories to the whole class. Undaunted by this heinous punishment, Scott kept on writing and soon was cranking out dozens of pages of prose every month.' 
       You can tell the author wrote this himself, right? Why on earth do we need to think that someone else wrote it? You're not going to make anyone think you're a professional writer--it says a few paragraphs down that you work in IT!
       And if you've got someone sending emails for you, introduce me, because I could use that.

Doesn't your book deserve the very best? Just take my advice: it probably does.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Freshman Again: Things you learn your second time around

I've now had the privilege of being a freshman at two very excellent schools: Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) and Cornell University. These two experiences, four years apart, have taught me some valuable lessons about being at the bottom rung of a totem pole--and surprisingly,  the basics of those lessons hasn't really changed. Here's some examples.

The artwork gets weirder
  • As a freshman at TJ, you envy the upperclassmen who know how to drive. In college, you envy the upperclassmen who know how to use public transport.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you learn freshman biology. In college, you learn the exact same biology but you pay two hundred dollars for the textbook.
  • As a freshman at TJ, when you loose at football, you rationalize that at least your players are smarter than the opponents. In college, you get your butts kicked by Harvard.
  • As a freshman at TJ, the first thing they teach you to do in a research project is look at books in your subject. In college, you actually have to do this. 
  • As a freshman at TJ, you can't wait to watch your first R-rated movie. In college, you get exited when you learn the local cinema is showing 'The Lorax'.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you learn drinking coffee is the best way to stay awake until 2am to work on your IBET paper. In college, you learn that drinking coffee is the best way to stay awake until 2am so you can party. 
  • As a freshman at TJ, you ask people where in NoVA they're from. In college, you ask people where in the world they're from.
  • As a freshman at TJ, your class is over fifty percent Asian-American. In college, your class is sixteen percent Asian-American, and everyone says they can't believe how many Asian kids they see.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you wonder if anyone on campus drinks. In college, you wonder if anyone on campus doesn't.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you think eighth period is the coolest. In college, you have less than four hours of class a day.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you're so busy that you never have time to clean your room. In college, your mother doesn't get so annoyed she'll do it for you.
  • As a freshman at TJ, playing sports means you have to work out carpools. In college, you don't need a carpool, but you'll do laundry twice as often.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you'll get used to having hour long bus rides. In college, your bus ride is only three blocks long, but still takes an hour because you stop so much.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you wish you could eat as much junk food as you want. In college, there's all-you-can-eat sushi, burgers, wings, nachos, and pizza, and you'd kill for a home-cooked meal.
  • As a freshman at TJ, there's going to be a few annoying kids in your IBET you can't get rid of. In college, those annoying kids live in your dorm.
  • As a freshman at TJ, your overnight trip with school friends is the funnest thing ever. In college, you're stuck on a giant overnight trip with all your friends and it's really hard to study.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you procrastinate by playing Bubble Spinner. In college, you procrastinate by working on your blog.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you join clubs like Dungeons and Dragons and Stonecutters. In college, you join clubs like the Women's Guild of Engineers and slack off with your friends.
  • As a freshman at TJ, you can't wait until you go to college. In college, you can't wait to get home and see all your friends from TJ.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Book Review: The Circle of Tivedon, by Ryan Shorten

            This week, I woke up thinking I could use a nice juicy YA paranormal romance. Unfortunately, there were none in my queue. So if you’ve got a story about vampires, werewolves, fairies, Bigfoot, and teenage romance, please send me an email. In the meantime, we’ve got The Circle of Tivedon, by Ryan Shorten—a fantasy adventure with plenty of swords and sorcery. When the story establishes itself, the voice shines through fairly clearly, but it struggles a bit in the beginning to find itself. The villain’s a bit cardboard-y and the jumping POVs can be a little confusing, but for a book with so many characters, The Circle of Tivedon differentiates them pretty well. Humor and voice blend together to create an engaging, if simple, adventure story.
There are no ice women in this book, despite the cover art

            We meet our hero, Jayl, as he and his sister Myah arrive in the city of Tivedon to attend school. Accompanied by a pair of magical Sigils around their necks, they’re in Tivedon to learn all about diplomacy and government—skills that will aid them as they take their father’s place one day in governing their home province. The reader is plunged almost instantly into a character soup as we meet the other students and the teachers. As far as beginnings go, it lacks tension and I don’t feel like there’s a reason to care about most of the characters that are introduced—save Jayl’s roommate, Heret, whose awkward introductory monologue did the job of helping the readers connect to his character.

            As classes begin in Tivedon, Jayl devotes himself to studying . Soon, he’s amassed quite a collection of information on the evil Rimyaroth, the villain who—spoiler alert—we met in the prologue. He encounters a mysterious wizard in the city market and obtains a magical monocle, as well as a bucketful of hints that the Sigils the students wear aren’t just there to swipe you in and out of your dorm. Magic, which we’re told is illegal, is afoot in Tivedon. Despite it being illegal, no one seems too concerned when they see their teachers, who are supposed to be instructing them in good governance, use it like there’s no tomorrow. But it’s a good thing they’ve got magic, because word soon gets out that the evil Rimyaroth has returned. One of the teachers sends Jayl, along with the two bullies who have been picking on him, on a quest to find the magical talisman that can be used to defeat Rimyaroth. And so the adventure begins!

            The author says this book is supposed to be YA, but I honestly feel like it’s better suited for a middle-grade audience. Jayl’s voice didn’t really have the maturity or hormone levels I’d expect to find in a high-school kid—he felt like twelve or fourteen at the oldest. Same with Myah and the rest of the characters. The storyline—shy kid discovers hidden powers, stands up to bullies, makes friends with new people, fights an absolute evil—is a middle-grade storyline. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this—look, it’s the same story we see in books I love, like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. But some minor editing would ensure this book was fit for the 5-8 grade demographic and would probably improve its marketability.

            High Points: The humor. Provided by characters like Heret, this book contains plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. The characterization. By the time Jayl’s voice really came through, I ended up liking him a lot more than I had at the beginning. The clarity of the plot. You know who the bad guy is and you know what the characters have to do to defeat him. Not all plots have to be like this, but the author makes clear what he wants to make clear and doesn’t clutter up the book with extraneous plotlines. Foreshadowing. All major events are foreshadowed.

Low Points: First chapter character soup. Makes it hard to get to know the characters because it doesn’t introduce them in a memorable way. Character names. The dump of foreign names you get at the beginning  makes it hard to understand who they are. Climax. It could have been drawn out a little to make it feel more climatic.

Did I like this story? Yes. Would I read it again? Yes. Would I recommend it to people who like YA fantasy? Probably not, but with some minor changes I would recommend it to my twelve year old sister. My rating? As YA fantasy, I’ll give it three stars out of five. As middle-grade, I’d give it four. As a book? Three and a half. 

--Liz Ellor, O43

You can get this week's book here

Sunday, October 14, 2012

So, this is awkward: I review my own school

So Tuesday afternoon, we (my roommates and I) are walking around the mall and realize there's a movie theater there. We decide we should go see a midnight premier together, but what? Quickly, we realize the only movie we really want to see is Breaking Dawn: Part 2: Necrophilia, Bestiality, Pedophilia, and Stupid Baby Names.

I really, really, want to see this movie. Really. I'm pathetic, aren't I?
  Unfortunately, none of us had watched Breaking Dawn: Part One: Just Necrophilia. So we all decide to watch it that night. We're in the elevator heading up to our room when we run into a tall Asian guy who asks what we're doing that night. We tell him we're watching a Twilight movie. He, surprisingly asks if he can join us. We tell him sure, that we're in room five three three four, and tell him we'll start the movie in half an hour.

When we get back to the room, my roommate Audrey shuts the door, looks at me, and says, "Do you know him?"

I shrug. "Nope. It might be Andrew. He looks like an Andrew."

So we spend this half hour trying to guess the mystery dude's name, with no luck. We pop some popcorn and rent the movie online, set up the computer screen and wrap up in blankets on the ground. No sooner has Bella walked down the aisle than our mystery friend shows up. I greet him with a hearty, "Hi, Andrew!"

He stares at me. "My name is Sam."

So in case anyone asks, I had a tall Asian friend named Andrew in high school, okay?

Also, I just told my roommates that all the buildings at Cornell have 'unique differences'. They're laughing at me again. Speaking of Cornell, did you know you could write reviews for places on Google? And that the places you can review include universities? So I turned my reviewer's eye to mine own school:

'Eh. Pretty decent place. A little old--sheesh, it's been around since the end of the Civil War. Could probably use a new coat of paint. Decent food, but the locals kind of freaked me out--I swear, almost everyone I saw was between the ages of 18 and 24. It was like I'd stepped into a breeding colony for extremely attractive people.

Also, if you stay long enough, the locals will harass you into signing up for 'classes', these horrible events you have to attend multiple times a week. Boring as hell. One of them--this 'Spanish' thingie--wasn't even in English!

The one redeeming factor this place has going for it are the parties--or so I've heard, seeing as how none of the so-called 'friendly' locals invited me to one. I guess it was me constantly asking where the bathroom was that turned them off--come on, like I was supposed to find it myself in a place this big!

So my visit ended up being a huge disappointment. I can't wait to get home. Unfortunately, they're telling me I've got to stay for a total of four whole years. Four years! Who has the time for that?"

Also, someone saw me walking around in a Jefferson shirt the other day and asked if I came from "Jefferson in Virginia?" I said yes. They asked me if I knew this girl named Erin. I responded that it was a pretty big school. Do any other TJ alums out there get asked this, or is it just me?

I was counting the months until it gets warm again yesterday and realized there were six of them. Is it too late to transfer to Miami?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Book Review: In the Grotto: Elrood the Elf, and In the Grotto: Universal Merit, by Eddie McGarrity

            For a change of pace this week, I picked up a collection of short stories. The adventures of Elrood the elf—told in two volumes, In the Grotto: Elrood the Elf and In the Grotto: Universal Merit, both by Eddie McGarrity—follow one of Santa’s elves who works at the North Pole. It’s a clever idea, and the stories brim with creative world building and narrative voice. A cacophony of indistinguishable minor characters makes things confusing at times, and it could use a bit more tension—a bit more clarification of why the stakes are high—but as a whole, these stories are cute, funny, easy reading.
You know, now that it's October, I find myself much less attached to the idea of being somewhere cold. 

            These two volumes contain four stories: an introduction and three short adventures in which Elrood learns to work in the North Pole’s Finance Department, organizes the Polar Games, and journeys to the South Pole to implement wide-reaching reforms in the naughty-nice system. Colorful details bring the world to life, from the lederhosen worn by the elves to Elrood’s devotion to the jolly figure referred to here as ‘the Boss’.  

            Sometimes, though, the author focuses a little more on world building than on story developments. In one story, ‘Complex Future’, the climax of the tale doesn’t really feel like the story’s been building to it. It could have used a little more emphasis and clarity to have an impact on readers—I didn’t feel like there was much emotional difference between the beginning and the end here. ‘The Greatest Show in the Arctic’ does a much better job of building to a climax, and ‘Universal Merit’ is a little bit confusing. The plot could have been clarified a little better.
            High Points: The wit. There’s a lot of snappy one-liners in here that really make you laugh. The voice. Elrood’s narration is consistent throughout the stories. Certain supporting characters. Astrid and Flemming feel pretty well developed and consistent throughout the stories. The light tone. It doesn’t feel too serious, which is a good thing and makes for easy reading.

Low Points: Confusion. The plot can be a bit hard to follow in places—and in places, I don’t even know if there is a plot. Multitudes of minor characters. I always find it’s best to have the absolute minimum of minor characters, especially named ones. When a character has a name, you feel compelled to remember it, and you don’t want that if they’re not important.

Did I like these stories? Yes. Would I read it again? Yes. Would I recommend it to people who like comedic stories? Sure. My rating? As comedic Christmas stories, I’ll give ‘em four stars out of five. As short stories? Three and a half.

--Liz Ellor, O43

You can download the stories here and here

Sunday, October 7, 2012

How to honor your track career . . .

Who remembers this day?

That thing in the middle we're all holding on to is a baton and the costumes are for the 4x400 relay ran just moments before. It wasn't a record-breaking occasion, but jaws dropped all the same as we stepped out onto the track, braving the wrath of our coach and the freezing cold weather to celebrate four wonderful years of running as friends.

Taylor, of course, sat in the booth and told us how silly we were.

I guess the problem started a month before senior night, when we showed up at another team's senior night. In one race, a dude dressed as a chicken chased a dude dressed like an egg. Funny, right? The moment we heard, we all sat down to make plans for our own senior night--and so did our coach. Growling to himself about how some people 'don't take track seriously', he glared down at us one day at announcements and said that we'd race in costumes over his dead body.

Or so we heard from the underclassmen, since we'd stopped going to announcements in September. 

The always devious Katherine pointed out that since none of us had actually heard him tell us not to race in costume, we could always just do it and say we didn't know. And the wonderful Rekha pointed out that even if coach got in our faces and told us no, we should just do it anyway. And I was on board because, firstly, I love running in costume, and, secondly, with Katherine and Rekha, it would be the fastest relay team I'd ever been on.

One problem? It's a 4x400 relay. And we had four senior distance runners on the team. And one of them was Taylor. 

"So I've got a fun idea," I said, sitting down with her at lunch.

"No," says she.

"Remember the meet with Madison?" Katherine says. "The chicken and the egg race? We were thinking we should do the same thing on our senior night."
"Was this the same thing coach told us all not to do?" she asks, staring at me and Katherine with a look that I've seen her use while cooking--she can boil water with a glance. 

"I mean," Katherine says, "yeah. But we're thinking--"

"No." She bites ferociously into a leaf of spinach. "Besides, I have to keep score."

Taylor likes keeping score. She likes organizing the little pieces of paper.

That afternoon, Katherine and I related our failure to Rekha. "Damn it," she says. "Maybe we can get one of the sprinter girls to do it?" And at that point, the beautiful blond known both as Wonder Woman and Sarah (another one of my four friends named Sarah) pops out of the soccer lockers and swoops in to save the day.

"You need a fourth for a relay? I think my name's still on the roster." And we all kind of mutually agreed that it probably couldn't make Coach any angrier. 

So as senior night finally rolls around, we've got cars stuffed full of costume pieces and roll up to the bleachers just as Coach completes his final slew of announcements. As we sneak our costumes up into the press box, we run into a bunch of underclassmen who tell us Coach warned them again about wearing costumes. No sooner have we stuffed the costumes into the press box, under the bench where Taylor sits, disapproving of our choices with her eyes. 

Coach sees us as we walk out. "Hey, guys!" he says, somewhat surprised. "I didn't see you at announcements!"

We exchange nervous looks. He continues. "Sarah! Good to see you again!"

"Good to see you, Coach," she mutters without meeting his eyes. 

"Hey, I just wanted to remind you guys about the uniform rules. Remember--" and then he launches into a long speech, reminding us of the tyrannical rules governing high school sports that have absolutely no purpose and are not followed in college or professional track. No earrings. No necklaces. No rings. No piercings. No rolling down shorts. The kind of rules Taylor has no trouble following. He finishes by saying, "--and no costumes. Understand? This is a serious sport."

As he walks away, Sarah makes this face:
She makes a little noise when she does this, too, like 'nnnnnnngh'
We return to the press box. Rekha stomps her foot and declares, "okay, I don't care what he says, we're still doing it." 

Sarah looks at us. "I don't care. I'm not on the team."

"We have to do this!" I said.

Katherine bites her lip. "Yeah."

Taylor rolls her eyes. "Whatever. I'm not involved."
Two hours pass. Score sheets fly. Taylor takes note after note, scribbling down times and places. Occasionally, she asks me to help, but then I screw something up and she lets me go. Finally, the 4x400 approaches. 

Rekha pulls on her Freshman Lock-in shirt that's been turned inside-out and painted with the Batman symbol. She passes the Wonder Woman tee-shirt and blue spandex shorts to Sarah. I don my jungle princess costume. Katherine dresses up like Princess Jasmine. Taylor rolls her eyes. 

After a brief argument about who's going to walk out first, we descend from the press box and into the infield where Coach is waiting. I'm walking in front of everyone. Coach sees us and walks over, a frown on his face. 

"Didn't I tell you guys not to do this? You're dishonoring the whole sport!"

We freeze. Coach takes another threatening step forward. I find my voice. "Coach, if we wanted to dishonor the sport, we would have quit four years ago. We're doing this to honor the sport we love."

And this was the result right here

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: The Last Judges Uncut Chronicles, by Jedidiah Isaac Gong and Matthew Edward Denny

            So after last week’s fallout, I got down on my knees and asked the Lord to send me a worthy novel. And He delivered . . . a right roundhouse kick to my solar plexus, a bullet through my kneecap, and a copy of The Last Judges Uncut Chronicles, by Jedi Gong. This apocalyptic novel draws equally from the book of Revelations and the X-Men comics. It could have used a little more internal tension and drive, but the excellent characterization and powerful imagination made it a book I couldn’t put down—all wrapped up with a professional, well-edited tone that wouldn’t make anyone think this was self-published.
This is why we get artists to make us covers.

       The first chapter dives straight into the story. Our first narrator, Anima X, rolls through city streets on a skateboard pulled by dogs on her way to the music studio where she works. No sooner has the energetic punk made it inside than the skies open up and a rain of blood pours down from the sky, lighting everything on fire. We witness her horror and her fear for her family members—and then the story cuts to New York, where we meet the psychic Jadyn Rivera, among whose talents are seeing strange visions centered around Israel and divine judgment. When she sees a vision of all the fish in the East River dying and the whole city’s water supply becoming contaminated, she decides it’s time to get out of town—and hops in a cab with a sexy cabdriver who’s a lot more than he seems.    

      Cut to a deserted Virginia highway, where two kids and their family are driving out of Baltimore, heading south.  There’s a lot of protagonists in this story—the first half is primarily concerned with bringing them all together—but the author handles the multiple protagonists well, cutting from viewpoint to viewpoint at the most suspenseful points, driving us to read on. But at the same time, he fashions all his characters with a great deal of realism, personality, and sympathy, so you can’t just skim the pages to see what happens to your favorites. This is the best type of reader’s dilemma.

        Of course, the Christian apocalypse has several disadvantages in fiction—largely, because at the end, you know everyone’s going to die and the only real question is heaven or hell? There’s not a great deal of soul-searching going on here, so much as there is ass-kicking of the followers of the Antichrist, kung fu with demons, and psychic electrocution of devil worshipers. The characters all get baptized, but we don’t really see a great increase in piety as a result. Then again, if the world’s going to end in a few more years, maybe it doesn’t matter if your body count starts approaching the triple digits, because everyone’s getting judged sooner or later .

       I also think the book could have used a bit more drive. The interactions and adventures of this colorful cast of characters is entertaining and well-written, but they don’t really have a goal for most of the story. It would have been nice to see that—maybe spelling out ‘Jesus Is God’ in bullet holes riddling the body of the Antichrist. So some kind of concrete goal motivating the characters throughout the book would make it better. So would having a little more tension between them. These characters form a pretty cohesive team, but no one group is completely happy all the time. A little more rivalry could spice things up a little in the slow parts.       
      High Points: The tone. Most of the book, I couldn’t tell was self-published. The emotion. The first time a character dies, I felt my stomach drop and was actually sad for the next few pages. The characterization. Believable and interesting. The illustrations. This book is illustrated, and it’s very pretty. The accents. Use of vernacular in books can sometimes feel stereotypical and crass, but the author handles it very well, making it into a realistic detail.
      Low Points: A long theological conversation. It’s a textbook argument against relativism and agnosticism, but it feels copy-pasted from a textbook, and it could have been broken up a little better. Chapter numbering. Just number them consecutively instead of splitting them by part. Fact checking. Nockamixon is not a large lake—just a detail which got to me after many summer vacations to those shores. The title. I’m sorry, but when I think of the Bible, the word ‘uncut’ takes on a whole new meaning. 

      Did I like this book? Yes. Would I read it again? Yes. Would I recommend it to people who like Christian apocalyptic stories? Maybe—if they wouldn’t mind the violence. My rating? As a Christian apocalyptic novel, I’ll give it four and a half stars out of five. As a novel? Four.

--Liz Ellor, O43

You can download this week's book by clicking here