Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How to choose the most vampire friendly college

So me and Erin were talking about The Vampire Diaries and villain decay the other afternoon when it struck me that Twilight is full of bullshit of the most obscene proportions (as in, more bullshit than the usual bullshit people bring up when discussing Twilight). Think about it--the Cullens pose as high school students forever? No wonder vampires say they've been damned to eternity in hell! I absolutely loved high school and even I wouldn't want to repeat it more than once.
This is a binturong. It's very cute and I just thought everyone should know this exists. It's screaming "HUG ME, HUMAN FRIENDS!"

Think about it. Edward tells Bella that they're posing as high school students so that they can blend in with a human town for the maximum amount of time. But is faking your own death every four versus every eight years such a pain in the ass that it's worth going through high school forever? Why not pose as college students? They'd be able to go all over the world, they'd be able to study absolutely anything instead of repeating Algebra Two over and over and over, and no one would care if they were weird. I can only conclude that Edward and Friends don't know how to find a vampire friendly college. This is a shame, as they're quite possibly the only people rich enough to afford higher education at the moment. So I thought I'd jot down some quick tips on choosing the proper college for America's most oppressed minority: vampires.

Find a college that offers night classes

Unless you're a bullshitty Twilight vampire (who I'm starting to suspect only repeats high school to meet underage girls) who isn't affected by sunlight, you're going to want to find a college that offers night classes. While evening classes have traditionally been seen as part of community and commuter colleges, designed to accommodate people who already have careers, many elite institutions are using night classes as a way to provide more flexible scheduling to students who have inflexible commitments (like, for example, the urge to slaughter small mammals and drink their blood).

Cornell offers plenty of night classes. In fact, starting mid-November, all classes that begin past three PM are night classes. I took a night class last year. Every Monday and Wednesday, I'd grab a milkshake from the dining room, climb to the freaking third floor of Morrill Hall, and promptly pass out while the teacher droned on and on about China. (Still aced the class, parents!). For matriculating vampires, finding the proper array of night classes is crucial to promoting a positive learning environment. Nothing detracts from an education like bursting into flames on the way to class. Or bursting into sparkly glitter.

Dining options: Ag schools, night life

Vampires traditionally display a wide variety of eating habits--well, for creatures that only eat blood, that is. Some vampires feed exclusively off humans. Others prefer animals. A few vampires feed exclusively off cats, but they're weird and we don't talk about them much. This is one of the complicating factors in defining 'vampire-friendly' colleges. Texas A&M has a big agricultural program, which is great if you're the kind of vampire who feeds off cows. But it's also in Texas, meaning that a lot of people have guns and Adeline Parks is more than willing to donate her giant silver earrings to melt into bullets. 
Got that, you bloodsucking varmits?
Pro tip--if you're the kind of vampire that feeds off humans, try going to a northern school. Why? Scarves! Nothing helps hide those suspicious neck marks like a school where everyone's always wearing scarves. Also, liberal northern college students will totally support your alternative lifestyle. Well, right up until the point where you start eating them (although, if you feed off those annoying drunk sorority girls who used to hang around under my window each night last year, you might find some surprising support)

Choosing Your Major: What Works For Eternity?

Lots of vampires are drawn to the easier majors--history, for example, since most of them have experienced it (though your paper on the taste of Queen Victoria's blood probably won't land you an A, even if it does have historical flavor). I'd like to encourage them to branch out a little more. Take something that isn't so open to changes that it's different every decade. You don't want to be one of those vampires who shows up to BIOM 3450 explaining how the liver produces blood and how to balance the four vital humors. 
And you don't want to quote this particular bit of medical wisdom. 
Physics can be useful. The basic laws really haven't changed since Newton stumbled on them. Of course, those basic laws really don't explain how a body can turn into mist or why you have an anathema towards religious symbols, but it's still good to know. Take something out of the box, like English. Hey, the undead don't really need jobs! Architecture is a good course if you like the idea of designing your own imperious lairs. Just don't take chemistry. I'm sitting in it right now and I'm being bored to death. 

Evaluate Your Housing Options

Who doesn't like to live in the dorms? Sane people! Also, vampires! While dorm life is great if you want to live on top of people who smell bad and leave their hair in the shower, the normal tolerance levels generally stop at someone hauling in a coffin to replace their bed (though if you do need to sleep all day, you'll find yourself in good company). There's a nice source of food nearby, but you don't want to get lazy and end up with the Freshman Fifteen-People-Whose-Iron-Levels-Are-Suspiciously-Low. 

For this reason, it's recommended that vampire students find a place off campus. Cornell has some lovely old fashioned houses built back in the 1800's up on the picturesque Forest Home Drive. Regular students can't even afford a doormat for one of those places, but for some of your older vampires, it'll be like stepping back in time to their childhoods (the cars whizzing up and down picturesque Forest Home Drive will ruin this image, so it's probably best to wear earmuffs to get the full effect. An off campus apartment can also be nice, provided you don't mind the scent of decay coming from the week old bananas in your trash can. Hell, you're a vampire, so you probably love it. In which case--can I start using your trashcans? Because mine stink. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Dad's Guest Blog!

Remember the story of William Tell?  The one where Tell shoots the apple off his son's head.  As the story goes, Tell was regarded as one of the finest marksmen in all of Switzerland, and as one of its more defiant citizens.  Upon refusing to pledge fealty to a local governor, he is commanded to face death along with his son.  His only possible escape is to use his crossbow to knock an apple from his son's head from some distance away.  The legend grows when he succeeds in splitting the apple, yet the governor notes that when Tell prepared his crossbow, he removed two arrows from his quiver.  The governor inquires as to the purpose of the second arrow, to which Tell replies that if he had inadvertently killed his son, the second arrow was to find a home in the Governor!  At which point in time, Tell is again arrested for his hubris.  (He eventually escapes again, but that is another story.)

The story became so famous that they even had to write the William Tell Overture and then make it the theme music to The Lone Ranger.   Not sure how they came up with that.  Perhaps the arrow-motif.

Elizabeth has always wanted her own bow and to learn to shoot.   Never really a hunter, but mostly for fun.   Then her sister wanted to give it a try as well.  We went to visit a bow clinic offered by a former Olympic competitor, where they shoot at targets about 3 feet in diameter from a distance almost a football field away....and they actually still find the bullseye.  Take that William Tell.  Think we learned that Liz shoots left handed, oh, and we also learned that you NEVER were supposed go retrieve your arrows while someone else was still shooting!  Like duh!

We finally acquiesced and Liz and her sister went and got some bows from Dick's Sporting goods.  Think they nearly hit their foot when aiming at the target the first time.  But they've been at it a week or so now, developing expertise.  Yeah experts now.

Liz comes home one day from her summer job at the Park last week, raving about the great day.  All the fun they had in "primitive skills" camp where she'd been assigned as a counselor    Hey what do you know, they teach kids to shoot arrows in this camp.  Liz does.  And what was so fun, Dad inquires? I was told they were trying to catch arrows that they were shooting at each other.  Not the kids, the counselors.  Primitive indeed.

"Yeah," she goes on, "I was shooting at one of the other counselor who was trying to catch the arrow as it passed by.  The first one she missed because I didn't come close enough to she told me to aim closer."

Are you getting this picture?  Apparently this whole "arrow catching" thing was an episode of Myth Busters, who succeeded in debunking some awesome catching skills demonstrated by David Carradine in an episode of Kung Fu.  I guess I missed that episode...hmmmmm, both the Myth Busters and Kung Fu episodes.

So I'm thinking this is crazy.  Smart people do not pretend to be William Tell and shoot arrows at or in close proximity to their friends.   Liz's friend had to duck out of the way of the second shot.  Missed again, rats!  I began to have visions of Christmas Story and Ralphie, "you'll shoot your eye out."

Later that week, Liz's mom was explaining the story to some 13 year olds.  They were also amazed.  One asked Diane, "Do they go to college?"  Yup, they actually do.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Perfect Primitive Wedding

So this past week I've been working as a camp counselor at Riverbend Park's primitive teaching camp: a place where children learn to make tools and weapons just like the Indians did it, except the Indians didn't use power saws when they were running out of time to finish a child's spear for them. It was a lot of fun, but we had to do a lot of cleaning-up this afternoon. Someone rented out the same pavilion we use for their wedding reception. Unfortunately, it's going to rain all weekend, and all those sticks we chucked out will almost certainly make their way back inside.

So what will this poor woman face at her venue? I can't tell. But at least the kids aren't there, because if they were, here's a few things they'd be facing.

The Traditional Rock Throw

I've been told you shouldn't throw rice at weddings, because it's bad for the environment. It's also bad for the bride, who has to spend the whole ride to the reception venue picking rice out of her hair. I've heard of people throwing birdseed, which is really nice for the birds, provided you live in an area with abundant songbirds and very few hawks. 

Imagine this. You're walking down the aisle surrounded by friends, family, and flocks of twittering songbirds. Suddenly, a flock of hawks swoop down and rip the songbirds apart, scattering entrails on your big day. The Greeks would call it auspicious. I call it grounds for divorce. 
But at primitive camp, we know that gathering the seeds from the plants that make birdseed takes hours and isn't really worth it. Instead, we'd turn to something much more readily available for a weapon: rocks. There's a lot of shiny ones down by the river we could pick up to toss at the bride. And dodging them would be just the thing to get everyone warmed up for the reception!
This is the first reason it's good that wedding wasn't scheduled for a weekday. 

Favors? Special Sticks

There are thousands of sticks in the wood. Some are wet. Some are dry. Some are skinny. Some are fat. Some have bark. Some do not. Adults have a great deal of trouble telling sticks apart because sticks are sticks. By definition, a stick is not very important. 

Unless you're a child. You've found The Ultimate Stick. Maybe your counselor has sharpened it using a machete. That stick is your stick, and it will never ever compare to any other stick in the forest. If it is broken, no replacement will do. Your counselor will have to glue it back together or you will cry. If they try to offer you a similar looking stick, you will know automatically it's the wrong stick and you will report to your parents that your counselors have really bad eyesight. Some sticks are special and adults can't find them.

What better favor to hand out to guests at your wedding? Just send your ring bearer and flower girl out to find as many special sticks as they can. I promise you, they won't disappoint. Just make extra clear that these are not keeping sticks, but giving away sticks. Make this as clear as humanly possible, then clarify it. They still might cry, but don't give in. Don't let them keep a single stick, because they will keep every special stick they find and every stick will be impossibly special. Their parents will not thanks you, and neither will your favorless guests.

Poison Ivy Decor

All weddings need a theme--something that draws the ceremony together. Having a wedding theme has been a tradition since the Dark Ages (where the theme was usually 'drag the screaming teenage bride to the bedroom by her hair'). For the bride on a budget, it's good to stick to a fairly common theme; something where you'll have lots of options and won't have to pay for too much custom work. And nothing's more common--nor easier for children to find--than poison ivy. 

The leaves are pretty, green, and fresh this time of year. As an added bonus, you can also get it in vine format. This perfect floral accompaniment will bring roses to your cheeks! Your single friends won't fight over the bouquet if you make it known you've got some of this in there. As an added bonus, you can use the vines for a romantic bonfire at the reception (note: don't do this. It's just that my campers brought back a poison ivy vine to use as firewood). 

DJ Screams-A-Lot

Last but not least, all receptions need a good DJ. I'm not a fan of modern pop music, aside from Call Me Maybe, which is so catchy you have to like it or go crazy. Rap music to me is just screaming. Rock music to me is loud banging. 

Thankfully, the primitive camp children are good at both. A good way to get them to scream is to present them with one of nature's most famed creatures: the common honeybee. Even one of those bugs will evoke all kinds of melodious noises from children. They also tend to scatter when faced with a bee, so be sure to purchase an enclosure ahead of time. Rocks and sticks make excellent drums

Who needs parties when you have small children? 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The origin of the campus quad

So I spent this weekend down at Virginia Tech with my friend Katherine, and couldn't help notice the giant sinkhole-in-waiting in the middle of campus.
They call it the 'Drill Field'. Probably because if you drilled into the ground, water would come up in a geyser and turn the whole place into a swimming pool. 
All college campuses find it necessary to include a big giant green space in the middle of campus. Cornell has four such quads--Ag, Biotech, Arts, and Engineering, so a biomechanical engineer could have four separate patches of grass to call their own. Even MIT has a quad, and they've go so little space in the middle of Boston that the integral of its size is a negative number. What is the purpose of this mysterious green space? This week, I'll present several of the leading theories (that I made up myself)

Alien Landing Pads

If The History Channel is to be believed, half the world's governments are controlled by aliens from other planets (as opposed to the many governments which in reality are controlled by aliens from Earth). 

Meme guy!
Modern rocket planes, like the ones that take people on those really expensive space tourism things, need landing strips to go up and down. But advanced alien flying saucers just need a big field they can hover onto. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (not the version with Neo), the most impressive work of alien technology is the locator beam that managed to find an open field in the middle of Washington, D.C. (And no, the Mall doesn't count, because it's always crowded with squishy humans).

College campuses are supposed to be centers for research and discovery. And what bigger discovery could be made than the existence of extraterrestrial life? Campuses all over the world must be secretly competing for the honor of being the first landing spaces for UFOs. No wonder you see flying-saucer shaped dishes flying across campus quads all spring--it's meant to be a signal for the little green men to drop out of the sky and provide their Alma Maters with billion dollar donations. Students will someday study astronomy in Galzzaxceef Hall. (Alternatively, wouldn't this make a brilliant sci-fi comedy idea?)

Bored City Planners

According to my father, no one ever considered city planning a thing until the release of SimCity. Whether that's true or not, one thing's for sure--city planners are only human (ignoring the alien theory from above). Universities are supposed to be aesthetically pleasing

Bored city planners 
Campus president's pretentious poodle needed a toilet of its own
Squirrel conspiracy to hide acorns
A prophecy that ultimate frissbee would be a thing one day--The Ultimate Prophecy.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Liz and Taylor present: The Economics of Harry Potter

One has to assume the wizarding population of Great Britain to be fairly small. JK Rowling only mentions 7 male wizards in Harry's class. Assuming equal proportions of males and females as well as equal proportions between houses, there should be approximately 14 wizards and witches in each house, so 56 total per year. With seven years at Hogwarts, there should be 392 students total at Hogwarts. Let's give JK Rowling the benefit of the doubt and, assuming Harry's class to be abnormally small, let's say there are 500 students total.

This poses an interesting question. What fraction of the general population is wizards? Using the UK life expectancy of about 77 years in 1997, the total number of wizards would be about 4,300. Using the 1997 population estimate for the UK as fifty million, less than a hundredth of a percent of the population are wizards. This would explain the relative ease of keeping their existence secret and would perhaps suggest that some of the many Ministry of Magic departments devoted to protecting secrecy are redundant.

So if the retirement age is around 65 and 17 is the age of entry into the workplace, the workforce contains about 2,700 workers, ignoring stay at home parents and Muggle born wizards' parents.

According to Quidditch Through the Ages, there are 12 professional Quidditch teams in the UK. Oliver Wood tells Harry in book four that he has been signed to Puddlemere United's reserve team. Puddlemere United is described as a second-tier team in Quidditch Through the Ages, so each team must surely have a reserve team. Each team must then have 14 players, so 168 of the wizards in the UK are playing Quidditch. If each team has only one manager, then 180 wizards are involved in professional Quidditch. This reduces the remaining size of the workforce to 2,520.

Subtracting the number of teachers at Hogwarts, (28 named, minus Dumbledore who is well over retirement age), we hit 2,492. There are 26 shops in Diagon Alley, and we low-ball our estimate of employees per shop at six. While some shops are mentioned as only having one employee, for example, Ollivander's, the Alley is also home to establishments like the Daily Prophet, which has many more. Only one shop from Knockturn Alley is included in this calculation (Borgin & Burkes) and no street peddlers are assumed, so an average of 6 employees is reasonable and likely low. This results in 156 people working at Diagon Alley, bringing the total number of wizards in the workforce down to 2,336. There are 20 shops mentioned in Hogsmeade as well. If we again assume 6 employees per shop, which again is likely low since many are service-intensive, then 120 wizards work in Hogsmeade, bringing the remaining total down to 2,216.

Now we get to the big guns: the Ministry of Magic. Mr. Weasley mentions a task force of five hundred who worked on casting protective spells for the Quidditch World Cup, so there must be at least five hundred workers. The office of the Minister for Magic and Support Staff contains about twenty-five employees (including the minister himself and undersecretaries), which sounds reasonable. The Department of Magical Law Enforcement has the Auror office (which contains eleven named members and probably consists of sixty total), and many more minor departments, one of which, the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts Office, is specifically mentioned to contain only two workers. The Department of Intoxicating Substances probably has five (there's not a lot of drinking mentioned in the books) and the Improper Use of Magic Office probably has ten to fifteen. All in all, I estimate the whole department contains about two hundred employees, bringing us down to 1,975.

So since there's seven departments total, I subtract an additional 1,200, bringing the total down to 775. Factoring in the unemployment rate of 7 percent in the UK in 1997, that brings the total down to 585. Five musical bands are mentioned. The Weird Sisters consists of eight members, and we can assume the remaining bands contain at least four members. If each band has one manager, then 29 wizards are involved in music, bringing the remaining total to 556. At least one wizard-run radio station exists (the Wizarding Wireless Network), which must be run by a minimum of four people, reducing the remaining total to 552.

Healers who work for St. Mungo's must also be accounted for. Five floors are used for treatment, plus an upper floor with a tea room and gift shop. If five healers work on each floor plus two trainees, then 35 wizards are involved in treatment. At least four people must work in the tea room and gift shop as servers and cashiers (one for each job for the day shift and night shift), and at least two wizards must work as receptionists (again, one for each shift), then 41 people total must work at St. Mungo's at a minimum. This brings the remaining number of wizards down to 511.

So while we used minimum numbers in this estimate, we feel those numbers are justified because magic use cuts out a lot of menial tasks and reduces the need for employees. Therefore, we feel that the remaining five hundred cannot simply be unemployed. Instead, they must work in the surrounding Muggle communities. Because Hogwarts does not teach math, science, or any useful twenty-first century skill, and they cannot produce a reliable high school transcript, they probably work as unskilled labor. They are probably all Hufflepuffs. (We should note, however, that they can use magic to perform such unskilled labor, making their lives cushier than those of Muggles doing the same jobs.)

We have discovered dark secret of the Harry Potter wizarding world. Hogwarts does not prepare graduates for the real world, and instead teaches them the easy way out. But, really, wouldn't you be OK working in construction if you could also apparate?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book Review: Kydona: From Ashes, by Thomas K. Krug III

After being pleasantly surprised by Kydona, I was more than happy to pick up the sequel, Kydona: From Ashes. My main complaint with the first book in this series was that it moved slowly and many of the mysteries introduced didn't get a good resolution. What I loved were the strong, complex characters. The sequel is the exact opposite--it moves quickly and it's full of action and intrigue. But the characters suffer, and one new character in particular made me want to throw up in the back of my mouth.
This chick. I can't stand this chick. 

The story begins as Prince Marcus and his friends in the Royal Watch enter the rebellious province of Kydona and march on the army gathered by tsaritsa Nadiya. The Watch is much better trained and equipped than the enemy, but they're vastly outnumbered. It's up to Marcus to use his intelligence and skill at arms to find ways to counteract them. As he proves himself, he rises through the ranks. But the Kydonians just keep coming, and soon Marcus is captured by the enemy. He resorts to extremes to escape, accumulating in a thrilling nighttime chase through a dark and foreign forest, as he tries to destroy his country's greatest weapon so that it won't fall into enemy hands.

This is the best part of the book. Krug's descriptions of combat are easy to visualize and haunting. The vast empty plains and the fear of his characters stick with you. Marcus, his best friend Vernon, and the overbearing but courageous Roberte de Auffay are all entertaining, realistic characters, though in many places the scene is stolen by Chaplain Stallings, a priest of the war god who quotes lines from scripture as he charges into battle, wearing a skull shaped helmet and wielding a giant mace. By the time they faced their inevitable defeat, I was on the edge of my seat and eager to see what comes next.

But when a captive Marcus is dragged back to the Kydonian court, all the life is sucked out of the book by the Kydonian leader Nadiya. She intrigued me when she was mentioned in the first book--a young woman thought dead for many years, who had returned to claim her crown and win her kingdom's independence. I thought she would make a good counterpart for Marcus, who's lead a relatively privileged life, to meet a royal woman who had to fight for everything she had.

Unfortunately, Nadiya turned out to be a huge disappointment. She's beautiful, hates violence, argues about the values of democracy (which felt so out of place in this alternate universe), and is so compassionate everyone who meets her thinks she's an angel. While her personal flaws are mentioned--like an over-fondness of alcohol--they never impact her in a negative manner. Despite being alone in the world from a very young age, she needs Marcus to protect her. Everyone goes out of their way to say how much they love her and anyone who doesn't love her is probably a villain. Marcus, even though he's a great warrior and leader, can also be very judgmental and rude.

The inevitable love affair between the two feels so forced. Marcus goes from an irresponsible playboy in the first book to a devoted husband on the turn of a dime. There's no development there. The scenes between him and Nadiya are so gushy they feel fake. Aside from a few misunderstandings at the beginning of their courtship, there's no tension between them at all, and real relationships aren't like that. I'm not saying that the author made Nadiya a Relationship Sue on purpose, but his attempts at giving her flaws are weak, especially since her two flaws (an overactive libido and a drinking problem) either benefit Marcus or don't negatively impact her in a major way (for example, she drunkenly cheats on him). Every other page, we're constantly reminded of how much they love each other.

At the start of the book, I thought I could read five more books easily set in this world. Krug writes great conflict, and this book is worth reading if only for the first part alone. But for a story to be truly believable, all aspects have to be up to par, and bungling the main romance story line is an excellent way to screw up your plot for good.

My rating? As epic fantasy, three and a half stars. As a novel, three.

You can find Kydona: From Ashes here. You can also find my book, Iceclaw, here.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Fun, Games at County-Mandated CPR Training

My favorite part about being employed is getting to walk through those mysterious little back doors you see in every place of business. What lies beyond those mysterious portals? Other than employee break rooms and old refrigerators? Nothing's so thrilling about a new job as is walking down the service stairs and entering a world known only to a select few.

If I didn't evaluate potential jobs by the presence of 'Employees Only' signs, I'd probably make a lot more money.

So this summer, I'm working as a camp counselor at Riverbend Park. There's a very nice employee break room and we also get to use the back entrance at the nature center. There's a whole room beneath the building stuffed with art supplies. But seeing as how we're working with children, it's only appropriate we all get CPR certified. Actually, it's the law.

This show discusses Game of Thrones more than I actually have at my job. This saddens me. 
When I arrive at the CPR seminar, held in the charmingly picturesque nature center, I find one of the county safety instructors freaking out at the sight of a charmingly picturesque spider, which is silly, because that spider isn't even on the 'Venomous Animals' page of our county-mandated safety guides. The other instructor  directs me to sign in, and I run through the old mental game of whether I should put down 'Liz' or 'Elizabeth'. Behind me, the fishing instructors are talking about the fish they caught that morning and the fish they want to catch when the seminar is over. I sit next to one of the park naturalists, who is probably the only person I've ever met who is actually named Rita. Since Italian ice is my favorite thing in the entire universe (besides Game of Thrones), I wind up salivating every time someone calls her name.

The instructors tell us to go over to the dummies they've set up to practice giving chest compressions. I make the obligatory joke about it being kinder to let the dummies slip away, since they're missing all their limbs and half their torsos. No one laughs. And that one always killed in TJ PE! But I kneel down besides my dummy anyway, on my county provided knee-pad. I assume those just magically appear whenever someone collapses with a stopped heart.

I pound on the dummy's chest so hard my sunglasses flop down onto my face and my ring cuts into my fingers. Nevertheless, the little LEDs in the dummy's chest flash red, which I assume is dummy for "I'm dying, you idiot!" The instructor has to correct my hand placement five times before it starts to flash green. I notice the dummies have skin tones from all different races, but all share the same dead face. The instructor keeps an extra face in her bag, the sight of which makes me want to scrub off my neurons with bleach.
Maybe she could lend it to him?
Then we get to practice breathing through a rescue mask, another handy piece of equipment I will totally remember how to use during an emergency. Afterwards, we get to rub off the dummies's dead faces with rubbing alcohol, because we haven't suffered enough. The instructor points out that we shouldn't give mouth-to-mouth to anyone who's vomiting. I totally agree.

Then we move on to the AEDs, the cool little machines where you have to say "Clear!" and then make sure everyone is actually clear before you press the shock button. The instructor shows us how to stick the pads on someone's chest. I note that every demonstration figure is male and wince while asking what to do if the patient is an extremely large breasted woman.

"It's not always going to be a large breasted woman," the instructor points out, and then gives us a nice explanation about lifting up rolls of fat that, you know, I really didn't need to hear.

My notes at this point say "Don't use AEDs on mules gnats or if he's in a band." It's eleven, I'm tired, and I'm still freaking out over the Game of Thrones season finale. Let's see what other gems come from me not being able to understand my own handwriting: "Spook the snake watches . . ." Oh, wait, there's a snake in that building named Spook who was watching us as we practiced giving the Heimlich to baby dolls. Apparently, you can roll the baby from one hand to the other by firmly gripping its head. It's a very professional and terrible thing to do.

The instructor finishes the workshop by grabbing the baby dolls by the legs and throwing them into bags. I suppose it's a mark of my preparedness as a camp counselor that I didn't even flinch.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Book Review: Everwinter, by Elizabeth Baxter

Epic fantasy is easy to write. Good epic fantasy isn't. Some writers rely only on ancient cliches--you got your elves, your dwarves, check the boxes, blah blah blah. Some writers are so inventive that they create worlds that don't make sense. Some use one dimensional stock characters, and some create wonderful characters that linger in boring plots (I'm looking at you here, S.M. Sterling!) Writing epic fantasy is first and foremost a balancing act--and one where Elizabeth Baxter's wonderful book, Everwinter, exceeds all my expectations.

Pretty shiny thing!

The opening pages, where a mad king releases the frozen weather of the Everwinter on his kingdom, feel a little stock, but soon we're swept to the city of Ral Tora, where the powerful Guild of Engineers works on an ambitious plan to heat their frozen city. Our hero, Bramwell Thornley (Bram to his friends), is a young engineer with sharp instincts and a crippling fear of heights, who likes nothing better than drinking with his friends--much more sympathetic a hero than the farmboys and shepherds of old! When an envoy from the northern city of Variss (a seemingly possessed enemy) arrives and claims his entire city has been destroyed, Bram finds himself questioning his belief in a rational, orderly universe. Driven by curiosity, Bram investigates the mysteries of Ral Tora's past--and finds himself teaming up with Astrid, the frigid ruler of the city of Chellin, on a quest to end the Everwinter for once and for all.

The characters in this story are so well drawn. Even as Bram grows as a hero, he doesn't lose track of his roots. He's still afraid of heights and tends to intellectually analyze all his problems. Astrid, the ruler of Chellin, keeps you guessing about her allegiances and plans. Falen, one of Bram's fellow engineers and a native of Variss, is tough, devoted, and smart. Even the supporting characters--from Bram's friends, to the elite Panther soldiers of Ral Tora, to a corrupt High Priest--are fleshed out and complex. The world shines--I loved the magical creatures Baxter invented, from the sea-serpent like tashen to the dolarchu, giant otters one can ride.  The cities of Ral Tora and Chellin both have their own feel and cultures, and well-handled description make them vivid.

The writing style is smooth and elegant, reminiscent of Robert Jordan, with perhaps fewer cliches. The mythology is amazing, with the old gods of the world both creepy and intriguing.

Like many epic fantasies, this one takes a while to get going. Bram doesn't have much of a goal in the first half of the book, but the world building and character development is so strong I didn't even mind. There's a few plot points I thought were a little contrived, but again, I felt like they didn't really matter so much in such a strong story.

My rating? As an epic fantasy, five stars out of five. As a novel, four.

You can find Everwinter here

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The story of my sixth grade trauma . . . set to music.

Here's the story of how I broke my wrist in sixth grade set to music far too good to be used for such stupid purposes. Check it out!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Weekend! Now With More Crazy Family!

Ah, Memorial Day weekend! That awkward mini break that my friends in Fairfax County Public Schools only get if there hasn’t been too much snow that year, and officially signifies the end of students caring about school. I don’t even know why we have classes until mid-June.

My extended family likes to celebrate Memorial Day with a big barbecue on our ancestral holdings in PA. There’ll be me and my family, my grandmother, great grandmother, my mom’s brother’s kids, great aunts and uncles, my cousin and her husband, and representatives from all the major purse dog species. We cook more food than we can eat and everyone still brings a dish to the gathering. I’m pretty sure that my Aunt Sally and Uncle Joe get the majority of their groceries via hosting potlucks.

Per my sister’s request, Mom made pasta salad. Per my great grandmother’s request, my grandmother made her famous pork barbecue. Not only are the women in my family long-lived—we’ve also got pretty strong teeth (*most of us*). We locked my crazy dog up at my grandmother’s house so she couldn’t beat up the purse dogs (just kidding, the purse dogs bite her legs and drive her crazy).

Joe said the barbecue would start at three, but that family members could come earlier, so we showed up at . . . noon. My cousin Sam was baking cookies and watching Arrested Development, which is a TV show some people care about. I don’t put much stock in her personal taste, because she doesn’t watch Game of Thrones. And this is a woman married to a man who we caught reading a Warhammer 40,000 novelization called Space Wolf. Get with the program, people! How am I supposed to have intelligent adult conversations if I can’t toss out a Game of Thrones reference every five minutes?

Can I sic your dragons on them, my queen?

A Yorkie and something called a Morkie (a curly haired yorkie) have locked jaws and are tumbling around on the floor like two crocodiles competing for a mate. Sally pops in and tells us that the eight packages of spicy Italian sausages aren’t gonna cut it.  Joe says he’ll drive down to the store and get more. “You want to drive the convertible, Liz?”

My heart stops. My father also has a BMW Z4. The ‘4’ key on my keyboard also produces the ‘$’ character, which probably isn’t a coincidence. My father has never let me near his precious, precious car. Granted, I don’t know how to drive a stick shift. But still.

“Really?” I say.

“Yeah, really.”

So that’s how I found myself sitting behind the wheel of the most expensive car I’d ever seen, wincing as I put my foot on the gas. “Give it a little more juice,” Joe says, and I push my foot down another fraction of a degree. We inch towards the grocery store at thirty five miles per hour, with Joe continuously reminding me to not slam my foot on the brakes before going around curves. Apparently, going around curves quickly is what sports cars are built for.

Our sausages procured, Joe drove us back to his house in a third of the time it took me to drive to the store. He quickly accelerated to sixty miles per hour and back down again, whipping around corners at forty five, continuously proving I drive like a wimp. No wonder my father won’t let me drive his sports car.

When we got back, Sam was rolling chunks of cookie dough into disks. Not seeing the point in the intermediate oven step, I swiped one of the disks and set out to find an empty place in the house to eat it. That empty place happened to be right by the front door. There I sat, chewing on my little ball of egg, sugar, and chocolate until the worst came to pass—I saw my mother pull up.

I heard her walking up the path, pushing my elderly great grandmother in a wheelchair, and did something I’m not proud of—slipping the cookie dough into my pocket and running into the next room. Then I realized the first place they’d bring my great grandmother was that room and my mom would ask me why I was running away. So I dashed out into the kitchen, where Sally and Sam were cooking, and I ducked down the basement stairs.

Now, it was pretty dark in the basement, and I didn’t want to go all the way down the steps, since I couldn’t see. But I didn’t want to draw attention by turning on the lights, so I just crouched down at the top of the steps and munched on my lump of cookie dough until it was done, at which point I came out and greeted my mother and great grandmother.

My mom’s brother, Dave, and his wife, Patrice, showed up with their two kids in tow, the youngest of whom is still a baby and seems to believe that the best game in the world is dropping things on the floor and making me pick them up. For some reason, all babies play this game. It’s encoded in their DNA.

My father had a lot to talk to Dave about, on the difficulties of raising young children. “You’ve got to watch out for those late afternoon naps,” he said sagely, as someone’s toy poodle rammed its head into the baby’s chest. Cue laughing baby. “You put them down in the crib and you have a few beers, and you’re drinking, and eventually you’ve had two or three, and your kid wakes up and starts crying . . .”

“Actually, I haven’t been drinking much since they were born,” Dave says, shooting my father an odd look.

Meanwhile, the two toy poodles are running in and out of the house, the Yorkie and Morkie on their heels, Occasionally, they jump on top of each other and spar for food like something from The Hunger Games. A gigantic dog with crazy eyes joins them and they crash around together, narrowly avoiding my great grandmother, who is eating her second meat sandwich.

Dad tries to get Molly to eat some of Sam’s handmade strawberry rhubarb pie by putting it on a fork and holding it up to her mouth, like how Dave tries to feed his infant. Only Molly isn’t fooled by airplane noises. “What’s a rhubarb?” she asks.

“A type of fruit!” Dad says, but Molly isn’t buying it. So my father spends three minutes of his precious, irreplaceable life trying to convince a thirteen year old girl to eat a piece of pie. And as Sam’s husband quickly informs him, a rhubarb is a nasty vegetable that looks like red celery, and if he saw it on the side of the road, he wouldn’t eat it.

The evening ended up like most of these things do: with me in the kitchen, talking to Joe and Sally, until someone point out that my parents have already left, and thus I mutter a curse word and run for the door. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Review: The Compostela Cube, by Paul Cavilla

So many thrillers revolve around conspiracies--books where action and mystery intertwine in a seamless whole. Fans of anything by Dan Brown will be familiar with The Compostela Cube's pattern--a history buff unravels an ancient puzzle surrounding a priceless artifact. The mythology surrounding the titular cube in Paul Cavilla's book is intriguing, yet grounded in the reality. But what doesn't feel grounded is the rest of the story--where flat characters battle ridiculous antagonists with the fate of all mankind hanging in the balance.

Look! The all-seeing eye of the Illuminati!
The story begins promisingly enough: with a professor and a priest attending an exorcism at the bedside of a comatose hermaphrodite, whose death foreshadows a coming darkness. Doctor Natasha Rossi--whose beauty will be mentioned much more than her Ph.D., is restoring artifacts in her shop. Adventurous archaeologist Gabriel Parker breaks into a drug lord's castle to steal the Cube of Compostela, which, according to his late adoptive father's journal, holds the key to his destiny. And Christian Antov, a wealthy but abused young man, has just learned his family's wealth and power comes from a diabolical deal struck eons ago. The atmosphere reminded me of Indiana Jones and The DaVinci Code. All eyes are focused on the mysterious Cube, and it's up to Natasha and Gabriel to protect it from the forces of evil as the world erupts in chaos around them.

The best part of this book, and the only part that kept me reading, was the mystery of the Cube. Cavilla shuffles around several of the major monotheistic heresies into an knot that's quite fun to try and puzzle out. Some of the artifacts and ancient booby traps the character encounters are intriguing, puzzling, and draw on the reader to figure them out. However, the interesting psuedo-history is pushed aside in many places by the chaos raging across the world as the shadowy Vanderhoff Group, a secret world government, enacts its plan to start World War Three in hopes of pushing the world to the brink of unifying under regional dictators.

While the possessed Christian Antov can be genuinely frightening, I felt like over a third of the book focused on him. At times, he felt like a cartoon villain, who went off on lengthy monologues about how humans were sheep who needed to bow to their rightful masters and such. And the ideas behind the Vanderhoff Group seemed a little ridiculous--no matter how the author tries to justify it, it's a stretch to say that one entity could hold the reins of power in the world while still going unnoticed, especially when that group is giving orders to the President of the United States. Lip service is given to the crash of the American economy, but the world where the story begins simply feels far to close to our own to justify this massive leap. And when the zombies come out? The plot grows weirder with every passing page, and it gets harder and harder to believe in the author's world.

Furthermore, Gabriel and Natasha are hardly interesting. The second they meet, they fall in love. No matter how must destiny is supposed to be pulling them together, no couple is perfect. You'd think they'd chafe at knowing their romantic lives were out of their own control, but both of them seem perfectly fine being attached to a perfect stranger. And Natasha has no personality traits next to her beauty. While romantic leads in thrillers don't always need to be deep, they should at least have other interests besides the male lead. Natasha's background in artifact preservation rises up whenever a handy piece of exposition is needed, but she rarely displays any passion for anything but Gabriel.

While perhaps unavoidable in a book about saving humanity from damnation, this book contains very little moral grey area. It provokes one of my pet peeves in a scene where the good guys gather from all over the world and instantly become close friends (seriously, would it kill these groups to have internal struggles?) and  despite all the turmoil happening in the world, our protagonists have it pretty easy--a prophetic vision tells an old nun in their group that they should pack their things before descending into the catacombs, because they won't be returning. Because when thousands of people are dying all over the world, God (the author, in this case) won't let his precious protagonists go without a pair of dry socks. There's simply got to be a better way of ensuring your characters have the supplies they need.

There's a good amount of wit in these pages, especially from the elderly priests and nuns who accompany Natasha and Gabriel on their journey. The action scenes are well written, and the ancient artifacts fascinating.  But by trying to make the stakes global, Cavilla looses realism, which is key even in fantasy. Just telling us about conflicts around the globe doesn't make sense--we need to see those conflicts reflected in the microcosm of the characters lives.

My rating? As a thriller, three and a half stars. As a novel, three.

You can purchase The Compostela Cube here. You can also find my novel, Iceclaw, here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why 'Divergent' isn't a true dystopia

So I just took a class on what make utopian and dystopia literature, and how those genres are defined. Here's my last essay on why the teen hit Divergent isn't dystopian at all.

Dystopia’s the new hot thing in young adult literature. Ever since the bestselling success of The Hunger Games and its sequels, by Suzanne Collins, lots of other authors have tried to capitalize on this trend. One of these so-called dystopias, Divergent, by Veronica Roth, has been met with considerable success. Having read both, it’s apparent to me that The Hunger Games is superior—not only in terms of plot in characters, but in following the traditional conventions of ‘utopian’ literature.
            The two books resemble each other in some ways: The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a young woman from the quasi-Roman nation of Panem, who volunteers to take her sister’s place in the titular Hunger Games, where twenty-four children fight to the death on national television. Divergent follows another young woman, Beatrice Prior, in a futuristic Chicago where everyone must swear themselves to one of five strict factions that each strive to exemplify a different virtue.  Certain surface features of utopias are apparent in each—notably, in that each is a futuristic ‘traveler’s tale’, where a character journeys somewhere new and is introduced to that society’s laws and customs by a guide. Katniss travels from her poverty-stricken hometown in District 12 to the opulent Capitol in the company of Effie Trinket, a chaperone who instructs her on Capitol custom and the preparations for the Games. Beatrice leaves her birth faction, which espouses selflessness, for Dauntless, a faction espousing courage, and is initiated into their customs by Four, an older boy. Katniss’s home country, Panem, is a play on words much like the word ‘utopia’ itself, which can mean both a ‘no-place’ and a ‘good-place’.  Panem refers to an old Latin phrase, panem et circenses, ‘bread and circuses’, referring to how Imperial Rome controlled its population. The word also sounds like ‘pan-american’, referring to how Panem encompasses most of North America.
            On the surface, both stories appear to draw on the utopian tradition. But utopian literature doesn’t just tell the story of a fictional society—it tells the story of our own. Classical utopias, like More’s Utopia and Bacon’s New Atlantis describe societies made perfect by solving a contemporary problem—More envisioned a world where the elimination of private property  would end poverty, and Bacon described a society perfected through public funding and respect of science. Dystopias describe societies ruined by extrapolating a contemporary problem to its extreme—in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, backlash to the feminist movement creates a strict theocracy that heavily limits women’s rights, and Huxley’s Brave New World creates a society where mass production and materialism dominate every aspect of human life. In The Hunger Games, Collins describes a country where the unequal distribution of wealth dooms millions to life in poverty, where reality TV has degenerated society to the point at which children are given makeovers and interviewed on national television before being sent to their deaths.  But the factionalism in Divergent in no way reflects modern society. Categorizing people by their greatest virtues may be an interesting idea for a story, but it isn’t linked to any contemporary problem in our society. Only one of these popular teen novels offers a commentary on modern life.
            First and foremost, the focus of any utopia or dystopia is on the society. That doesn’t mean individual characters cannot be well written or developed, but that the interactions of the characters should reveal something about the system. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred, the narrator, paints a comprehensive portrait of the theocracy of Gilead through her interactions with characters who play different roles in Gilead’s ridged social structure. The relationships between the narrator and the other characters tell the story of the society as well as the individual. In The Hunger Games, Katniss initially only trusts the other people from her home district and doesn’t think of allying with an outsider until one saves her life. Initially, she fears and hates the competitors from the wealthier districts, because she feels they have an advantage in the game. It’s not until she watches those competitors die that she realizes her fear and hate should be directed at the governing authorities that created the Hunger Games in the first place. But in Divergent, Beatrice’s story is much more about finding her own identity and making friends than coming to terms with the society she lives in. Katniss asks herself who the real enemy is—the other children coming to kill her, or the government that created the Games?  Beatrice asks herself whether it’s possible for her to be brave and selfless at the same time (the answer is yes, easily, if you’re a poorly written character in a bad book).
            The word ‘dystopia’ is often used to refer to any story set in an alternate society that has very strict, often oppressive, rules.  While genuine utopias in the style of Thomas More’s are hard to find these days—probably because books without conflict have a hard time holding the reader’s attention—modern dystopian fiction builds off the earlier utopian tradition. Certain thematic elements of utopia are easier to recreate than others, such as ambiguous, symbolic names or framing the story as a traveler’s tale. But the ultimate purpose of a utopia or dystopia is to tell the story of an alternate society that either prescribes a solution (practical or not) to, or shows the harmful extremes of, the writer’s society. While Divergent may take place in an alternate society, its lack of social commentary and connection weaken the case for it to be truly dystopian—and weaken the narrative as a whole.  Novels like The Hunger Games, which use characters to tell the story of a greater struggle in society, and relate to the society readers live in, are more than truly dystopian—they’re truly deep. 

And if you want to check out my own novel, Iceclaw, you can find it here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thanks for the page views!

Thanks for the page views, girls from High Rise Five who don't understand comedy!

Here's a nice video, just for you!

Monday, May 20, 2013

How to 'help' your friends move

So I'm finally back in VA and out of that cramped forced triple in Hell Rise Five. While I'll miss my friends over the summer, I sure won't miss that awful dump. Seven stories of misery and pain, filled with the pungent odor of weed and the awkwardness of sharing an elevator with five other strangers who live next door to you. I'll forever remember the joy of the elevator stopping at every freaking floor on the way down, the tiny little kitchen I was forced to share with far too many other people I hated, and how the stairs didn't go down to the ground floor. Apparently, that was supposed to make the building 'riot-proof'

But before I could hit the road and head home, I had to get all of everyone's crap out of my dorm room. And since my mom drove up to get me in her minivan, I offered to help my friends get their stuff into storage. Ayesha's going back to India over the summer, so it's not like she can take all her stuff on the plane (heck, the way airlines are these days, they probably make you bring your own crappy peanut bags and charge you for them). Asta's off to Baton Rouge. Audrey and Sarah will be up here over the summer and don't want to haul all their crap back to the midwest.

 The common sense solution would be to rent a storage locker until Audrey and Sarah get back, at which point they can move everyone's stuff into their apartment. If they split the costs four ways, they'd only need to pay fifteen bucks each. But we're college students. What's fifteen bucks when you could store your expensive textbooks, favorite clothing, and cookware people actually eat off in a dark pit filled with spiders?

We loaded up a cart I'd dragged away from a bunch of boys busy loading bedding into another minivan. They're men, they can lift their own freaking sheets. So we pile the cart with boxes of bedding and that freaking annoying fan that keeps falling off the window and drag them out to the car. We shove in Ayesha's clothing, which is partially stuffed in plastic trash bags we stole from the bathroom, and we shove in Audrey's snowboard and climbing gear and ski equipment . . . you know, I'm thinking she should probably pick one sport and stick with it.

Then we drive down to the ski house, the vaguely remembered site of the salsa incident, and carry heavy boxes across the street, dodging buses and vans and whatnot. Turns out, the basement where Audrey's friends promised she could store her stuff is nothing more than a gigantic hole in the ground. A hole guarded by bees, filled with flies and old newspapers, smelling of mildew and decay. The Pit.

Also, you can only get in there by stooping under the porch, so carrying boxes under it is a whole lot of fun! (Not really).

The next day, we had to help Asta and Xinting get Asta and Sarah's stuff out of Balch Hall--the all women dorm, build before the invention of wide hallways and elevator access (but after the invention of dark, horrible pits). We grab the first cart we can find and wheel it over to the elevator. Then we wait. And wait, and wait, and wait. Because the elevator is one of those primitive contraptions with a gate you need to close by hand, it can often take hours to arrive at your floor, especially when people on all other floors are trying to do the exact same thing as you. And of course, my friends live on the sixth floor. The elevator only goes up to the fifth.

Yes, this building has six stories

So there I was, waiting for half an hour on the fifth floor as my friends ran up and down, bringing boxes full of random crap down to the cart. Boxes of stuff like cookware that probably should have been taped shut were instead just hanging open (to provide easy access to the spiders in The Pit). Sarah also left behind a binder full of loose-leaf paper and a CD that, despite it being flat and square, she decided to balance precariously on the top of the box, instead of putting it on the bottom. It fell out four times.

We played charades in the hallway until Asta finished packing her last box. I was always it, either because I'm the most creative one or the only one willing to act out pop culture milestones. Ayesha and Audrey are surprisingly good at guessing my charades. TV show? 'Game of Thrones'. Book? 'A Game of Thrones'. Book? 'A Clash of Kings'. They cut me off before I could act out 'A Dance with Dragons', which is a pity, because I had some great dance moves planned.

Somehow, we manage to get everything in the car and back over to the ski house. I decided to wait with the car as the girls carried their stuff down into the parts of The Pit that aren't even lit by a single bare, dangling bulb. As we leave, up pulls a pick-up truck driven by a girl wearing a headlamp. Clearly, someone came prepared.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: Blurry, by Sherri Fulmer Moorer

Breaking with my usual pattern, I picked up Blurry, by Sherri Fulmer Moorer. This contemporary YA novel focuses on Rachel, a college bound senior who finds it's more than just college driving a wedge between her and her friends. When her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend dies in a suspicious car accident, Rachel undercovers a criminal organization pulling the strings in her town--and some of her friends may not be as on her side as she used to believe.
Pro tip--your title doesn't have to describe your title image.

All Rachel wants is to finish senior year peacefully. Too bad the police are interrogating her about if her ex-boyfriend, Danny, is a possible murderer. She broke up with Danny because his love of illegal street racing made it clear he'd always be trouble, but she doesn't think he's capable of killing in cold blood. To make matters worse, kids in school are spreading rumors about her social life and her old friend Josh is pulling away right when she needs him the most. The more she learns about Danny's racing pals, the more she's convinced that something criminal is occurring in her town . . . and someone close to her's about to sell her out.

The concept is interesting and the big solution of the mystery at the end comes as quite a shock. I enjoyed reading about the underground movements of the racing ring--which was one reason I was disappointed that the action focused so much on Rachel and her friends from school. We're dropped all these hints about the money that's involved, the fast cars--but we don't get a single scene of a actual racing. This distances the reader from the real conflict and makes the stakes abstract, not real.

I also feel that Rachel's character could have been better developed. She displays a few Mary Sue tendencies  For example, random strangers compliment her good traits in situations where they normally wouldn't. The police officer interviewing her about a potential murder runs through a long list of all her accomplishments--her good grades, her musical talent, her writing skill--calls her a 'beautiful young woman' and a 'wise young woman'. Frankly, that scene reads like he's hitting on her, and I can't help but feel that hitting on a high school student is a good way for a cop to lose his job. If it was explained that the cop had a crush on her, that'd be one thing, but I felt like it was just a scene to showcase how good Rachel is.

And anyone who speaks out against Rachel is automatically cast as a bad guy. There's Marielle, described as a 'typical popular girl', who is blond with blue eyes, a cheerleader, and rich. Yeah, she shouts at Rachel in the scene she's introduced, but her best friend was just supposedly murdered by her boyfriend (who's also Marielle's friend). Instead of sympathizing with her emotional fragility, Rachel asks if they teach rich people manners. And when another student suffers from depression, a close friend of that student accuses Rachel of being too sheltered to notice what's going on. Rachel and her best friend Natalie quickly decide that girl can't be their friend anymore, even though what she said feels totally reasonable to me. This lead to me disliking her character--the story makes it clear that Rachel can do no wrong, even when some of the things she does are quite rude.

While the book is a little blurry itself at the beginning, it clears up a lot when the action gets going. Strong supporting characters like Danny, Micah, and Sasha help invigorate the text. There's quite a few good twists and turns in there you won't see coming. But the dullness of the main character and lack of connection to the criminal plot dampen down the overall tone of the novel.

My rating? As YA contemporary, three stars. As a novel, three stars.

You can find Blurry here. You can also find my book, which does not include illegal car racing (but has dragons) here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review: The Contaminants, by Devin K. Smyth

Yet another hard sci-fi story of teens surviving in space, The Contaminants would fit well with William Woodall's Tycho. Both feature a desperate flight into space as humanity's last hope of surviving the apocalypse. But Devin K. Smyth's The Contaminants does what Tycho doesn't--create believable, sympathetic narrators and stick to a tight paced storyline. While a few minor details remain fuzzy and some bits of backstory could have been re-arranged, The Contaminants will please any fans of H.G. Wells style of short, hardcore science fiction.
Photoshop glow effect, how I love thee.

When Earth's overpopulation threatens to destroy the planet, the American government conspires to wipe all humans off the face of the earth--save a select group to be sent up in luxury space ships to repopulate the worlds. But when the rest of the world learns about the plot, they declare nuclear war, and only a small fraction of the chosen few survive.

Jessil Callowyck is not one of the chosen few. She and her brothers stowed away on the only surviving ship. With less than a thousand remaining humans, she doesn't think it matters if her genetic sequence is up to par--until the day a video feed from Earth indicates that her father may have survived the blast. Her delight turns to horror when she learns the ship's chief scientist is planning to kill any of the humans remaining on the surface. He doesn't want anyone with 'contaminated', or less than perfect, DNA repopulating the planet.

Soraj Guyat is the mad scientist's son--a teenage boy who helps his father research the conditions of the devastated Earth, but can't find the words to admit his crush on Jessil. He's never broken a rule in his life before Jessil convinces him to help her stow-away on a reconnaissance mission to Earth. It's there he'll have to choose between his friendship with her and his love of his father--if they can survive the mutated creatures swarming over the surface of a world they thought they knew.

Smyth's characters are strong and wonderfully voiced. Jessil's energy and enthusiam contrasts nicely with Soraj's caution and computer-savvy. The world is beautifully rendered--from the ship's broken luxury to the mutated jungles on Earth--and no detail is omitted. I particularly enjoyed the mention of the ship's church, which has been turned into a storage room, because 'people gave up hope long ago'. The devastation, fear, and the tiniest threads of hope are all quite palpable.

While I would have liked Soraj's father's motives to be a little more fleshed out--what's so bad about these humans' DNA that they can't be permitted to reproduce?--I found him a decent antagonist, and the supporting characters, in particular, the ship's Captain Monumba, well fleshed out and interesting. The only major change I would make would be relocating the third and forth chapters (both of which give us Jessil and Suraj's backstories) to later in the story and slimming them down. Like I pointed out in my review for But The Children Survived, after the reader knows that the world's ended, backstory's a killer unless it's extremely pertinent to the main plot.

Other than those minor details, The Contaminants is an excellent story with engrossing characters--and better yet, a plot that moves quickly enough to hold the readers' interest! I think it's apt to compare it to H.G. Wells--especially The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. While readers of modern YA may not be thrilled by the lack of romance, fans of classical sci-fi will be thrilled.

My rating? For YA sci-fi, four and a half stars out of five. For a novel, four and a half stars.

You can purchase The Contaminants here. You can also go here and purchase my book, Iceclaw.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Book Review: Rowan, by Christina Channelle

This week, we're featuring an author who I've worked with before: Christina Channelle, author of the Blood Crave series. I reviewed the first book in the series, Dahlia, and the follow-up novella, Fallen Tears. The second official book in the series, Rowan, builds nicely on the ground established in the earlier books while introducing a new cast of characters that are much stronger than the ones we meet in the first. A combination of good characterization and mostly well handled pacing makes Rowan the best book of the series so far.

Rowan, one of the world's last remaining vampires (or lamia, as they're known in this book), awakens from a four year slumber when her need for blood grows too great to be controlled. Stumbling out into the streets of Fallon (a city partially controlled by fallen angels, or lapsus), she feeds off passing humans, only to stumble across a dead boy in an alley. Impulsively, she decides to turn the boy into a vampire to save his life--and we discover it's Sam, Dahlia's foster brother from the first book and one of my favorite characters in this series.

With her blood supply rapidly dwindling, Rowan seeks out Remy, the lapsus who she lived with until his mother was murdered. While the Remy of the Fallen Tears novella was young and slightly geeky, he's grown up a lot in the years since Rowan's last seen him (though his crush on her hasn't faded). Together, Sam, Rowan, and Remy decide to seek out the lapsus who murdered Remy's mother. But a mysterious new power stalks the streets of Fallon--a centuries old entity who preys on supernatural creatures to extend its own life.

 Rowan's a much more proactive heroine than Dahlia, but little details like her fear of the dark (and her struggle to hide it from Sam, who she looks upon as her student in all things vampire) keep her feeling human and vulnerable. Her voice has a lot of attitude, but it's easy to see that it's mostly a front she puts up to hide her personal self-doubt. I also like the way her relationship with Remy develops. He may not be Rowan's first love, but the two do have history together. Most importantly, they relate to each other as equals. Their banter and their friendship make their relationship equally entertaining and real.

One of my big critiques of Dahlia was that I felt not enough was happening. There's a lot more stuff going on in Rowan, and the narrative follows a much more traditional pattern of action. Villains new and old pop up to threaten the main characters. My one complaint with the pacing is that there's a slice of exposition inserting a break between a giant twist scene and the book's emotional climax (which, no spoilers, made my heart sink in my chest). While it is a set-up for the next book in the series, it holds readers' attentions on its own.

I would have also liked to see more development of the world. The city of Fallon feels somewhat generic--there's no feelings of local culture, or real landmarks, and there's nothing visual that sets it apart from any other city in the world. That makes the story feel small, isolated--like nothing exists beyond the lives of the main characters. Worldbuilding is key to giving a story the proper scope.

Faster pacing, stronger character voice, and increased emotional draw make Rowan a much stronger installment in this series. My rating? For YA paranormal romance, four stars. For a novel, four stars.

You can purchase Rowan here.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Dumbest Classes Cornell Offers (and how to BS them into something that looks good on your resume)

A few weeks back, I wrote a modest proposal for a new class and was approached by quite a few people who wanted to know if it was a real thing. Sadly, Cornell does not offer deer hunting as a class. But it does offer some interesting substitutes. 

College is supposed to be the place you go to learn the skills you'll use to build your career. One of the many  useful skills you learn there is bullshit--the art of making something useless, pointless, and worthless sound important, pertinent, and complicated. What follows is a list of the most useless classes my university offers and a helpful guide for explaining to your future employer why you took them:

AAS 4550
Race and the University

On the surface, an in-depth examination of the role race plays in higher education sounds like a good use of your time. You might learn about the historical struggles of minorities to obtain higher education, or the debate surrounding affirmative action. But you'll be hard pressed to explain to your future boss why this counts to your major in Asian American Studies. 
Not a racial stereotype. At all. 

That's right. The class on race and higher education is in the Asian department. Since I'm white, I can't exactly say this is racist--but the course says it will focus on examining America's 'major research institutions' and explore how it is 'that certain knowledge formations and disciplines come to be naturalized or privileged within the academy?'

How would I explain this to my future employer? Hand them the course description and say, 'I understand this'.

ASRC 6517
The Oprah Book Club and African American Literature

Yes. This is a real thing. I understand that Oprah's a major icon for the African-American community, but she has more classes named after her than Martin Luther King Jr, President Obama, and Fredrick Douglas combined. I could understand a course on Oprah's role in the African-American community--perhaps focusing on how she's inspired black women, or on how she's worked outside cultural boundaries. But a class on Oprah's Book Club? 

ASRC 6517 promises to 'draw on a range of critical and theoretical resources related to the Oprah Book Club archive', a sentence your average Oprah's Book Club reader can't even understand. The very fact one watches Oprah indicates you don't really have that much to do during the day. Next thing you know, the American History department will be offering courses on Honey Boo Boo and What Not To Wear

How do you explain this class to your future boss? 'It was a requirement for my major. The department chair was Oprah herself'.

EAS 1220

You can say this much about this introductory Earth sciences class--it sounds like a direct to DVD sequel to Airplane!, but one that'd be slightly better than Airplane! II. I understand the importance of making your course sound memorable, bu t come on, this is Cornell. Part of the Ivy League tradition is taking classes with pretentious names. 'Introduction to Anthrobotany in Geographically Isolated Systems' just sounds better than 'People Farming On Islands'. Adding an exclamation mark after the course title will convince absolutely nobody to take it. 
Or watch your horrible, horrible movie.
This class is supposed to be about understanding how natural disasters occur and are mitigated. The first half of the course focuses on building earthquake proof buildings, which is probably good knowledge for society to have. There's a lot of stuff in there about analyzing data and public communication, which sounds pretty boring for a class with an exclamation mark in its title. But this class doesn't just focus on plain old earthquakes. Rather, it covers volcanoes, tsunamis, and the ever exiting 'threat of extinction from a future impact by an extraterrestrial body' 

How to explain this to your future boss? 'Ever seen Armgeddon'? 

SHUM 4864
Pirate Humanities

Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! This class (which is BYOR, by the way), sounds like it can't quite be what it sounds like. This is about media piracy? Right? Nope. Offered through the Cornell Society for the Humanities, this class 'examines pirate assemblages as an ineluctable underside of capitalist modernity'. In other words, where you've got money, people are gonna try and steal it. This is an actual class about actual pirates.

You will always remember this as the day you almost  had Professor Jack Sparrow!
And yet the course description makes it sound like the most boring class ever. 'Within a framework of control and emergence (derived largely from contemporary theories of risk, biopolitics, and securitization), the course seeks to develop a posthumanist understanding of the pirate'. Seriously? What does that even mean? It's a course on freaking pirates! Stop trying to make it sound all smart and stuff. Anyway, there might be some good stuff in this seminar  but it's limited to 15 people, so I suggest illegally downloading Pirates of the Caribbean instead. 

How to explain this to your future boss? Tell him it was a current events course about crime in the failed state of Somalia. Try to look somber. 

DSOC 4210
Theories of Reproduction

Is this class about . . . reproducing machines? Reproducing ancient texts? Nope. It is exactly what it sounds like. A four thousand level course on human reproduction. Keep in mind, this is something human beings have done for thousands of years without any real need for explanation, but apparently Cornell students are so nerdy they need an advanced class on the correct procedure for baby-making. 

This class will empathize 'gender-based' theories of reproduction. I'm assuming this lecture will begin with 'When a man and a woman love each other very much . . .' I'm not sure how you could have a theory of human reproduction that wasn't gender based. It will also examine what makes 'families have any, few, and many children', and I assume the answer will be closely related to sex. Isn't this material taught in ninth grade health classes across the country. The very existence of this class puts the future of the American educational system in doubt. If you take this class, it actually lowers your chances of getting laid. Or you might just be a developmental sociology major, in which case, sorry. 

How to explain this to your future boss? Don't.