Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Seven Professors You Meet in College

The blond chick is still unconscious.

Don't panic, it's seven AM on a Tuesday, and said blond chick is my sleeping roommate, Audrey. I can't blame her for sleeping; I wish I was still asleep. But no, I've got to do this Spanish worksheet that's due today. And I can't do it in another class, because Spanish is my first class.

Yeah, sometimes I do work for other classes (or my blog) in class. It depends on how good the professor is. Fun fact: there's only seven professors in the world. The rest are just faceless robots standing behind a podium. Here you go.

The Communist

This professor emigrated from the USSR in 1991 and believes Gorbachev was a CIA plant sent to destroy the greatest empire of all time. Lecturing in a thick Eastern European accent, he's nearly as hard to understand as the thought process behind the Bay of Pigs. No matter what class he teaches, he will find room in every lecture to explain why the West is corrupt and evil. You will learn a great deal about American imperialism, mutually-assured destruction, and Karl Marx.
Every dude in the class will try to grow this beard.
For a few weeks, you will hang a hammer and sickle over your desk, until you get your tuition bill and realize that only through the ownership of private property will you ever pay off your student loans.

The Overpaid Humanities Professor

She's finally got tenure and no longer has to pretend to be interested in students. Makes eighty thousand a year teaching classes like 'Television in Society' and 'Early Modern Erotica', and 'Introduction to the French Cinema'. Despite being a tenured professor, she nevertheless pretends that she's no older than her graduate students and feigns a kind of manic enthusiasm for practically everything. Her specialty is something like 16th century Ottoman rug designs or traditional Mongolian fashion design, yet her work is considered much more valuable than that of a high school teacher in the inner city, trying to encourage students to escape poverty.

The Cool TA

This is the TA who comes to class every day wearing a tee-shirt from a classic rock band and prefers chilling with students as to doing any work. She will never mark you absent nor take off points for late work. Will teach you several innovative curse words and the locations of the best bars on campus. Best professor imaginable until you go on to the next level in that class and realize you didn't learn anything at all.

The Lame TA

A hipster just out of graduate school who can't keep his eyes off the curvy Indian girl with the plunging neckline in the front row. He'll read the types of genetic mutation off the Power Point and get the definitions wrong. If this is a subject matter you know very well, you will be supremely irritated by all these little errors. He'll keep looking over his shoulder as if he hasn't yet internalized the fact that he, and he alone, is the only teacher of the class. Now the scantily dressed Indian girl is talking about her favorite poem, using language from her Feminist Studies class and explaining that she likes how defiant said poem is, because it's about defiance. The Lame TA stares at her in reverence, says something flirtatious, and hopes that she'll teach the class for him.

The Mad Scientist

Everyone's favorite professor. Welcoming, low-key, and eager to direct students to follow their passions, it's nevertheless difficult to take him seriously because he looks like this.
It's like his hair is trying to run away from his thoughts

Will have a lab on campus and several species of bug named after him. He's the reason the bio department has a walrus skull sitting in a cabinet, along with a ratty stuffed platypus and the head of a miniature deer (I'm pretty sure it's a dik-dik, and I'm pretty sure the name comes from what you have to be to cut off one's head and toss it in a cabinet). An expert on animal communication who knows nothing about the mating patterns of his own species, The Mad Scientist is the only person who knows why the word 'sperm' is written in tiny text in the corner of every lab manual. His breath also smells like old gym socks.

The Made Up Professor

This professor only ever appears in bars and at parties, usually right after some kind of bet has been made. From about 9:00 to 10:30, he's known as Professor Daniels or Doctor Morgan. Then the good stuff runs out and you hear about Doctor Chair and Professor Beer Pong. A longtime member of the Trivia department, he's an authority on everything from the Oscar winners in 1977 to the main exports of Tajikistan. Only possesses a 50/50 accuracy ratio (as compared with Wikipedia) at best. The accuracy ratio declines over time.

The Professor Whose Tests Are Easy (For The Professor)

This man wants everyone in his class to get an A. If only the students wanted it as much as he did! Seriously, people, these questions aren't that hard! They're all true or false! Unfortunately, this professor teaches biology, and so the answer to about half the questions happens to be It Depends On A Wide Variety Of External Factors, Which May Or May Not Matter, Depending On How The Question Is Worded. As you struggle to pick apart the minute inflections of grammar, you'll get an excellent course in English and psychology. You will develop excellent critical thinking skills (starting with thinking critically about your professor). Despite the fact his tests are perfectly easy, he will nevertheless interrupt the final exam six times to explain typos, clarify ambiguous wording, and strike questions from the test after he's realized we didn't actually cover the material. By the end of the semester, you still won't know what the ADH/RAAS cycle is, but you'll be secure in the knowledge you can always look it up in that two-hundred dollar textbook he made you buy.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Nine Reasons Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would have been Better at Hogwarts

So this has been rattling around in my head for quite some time now--an inappropriately long time. It wasn't until I was driving down a certain snowy road when it popped into my head, this really weird chain of thoughts (it was really early in the morning and I hadn't had coffee yet. So sue me): Once, when I drove down this road as a kid, I was watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the backseat. That snowy forest over there looks a lot like the forest where Harry and his friends spent a lot of Book Seven camping. Pity they weren't at Hogwarts in Book Seven. 

 The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I (as so rarely ever occurs) was right. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows should have been set at Hogwarts. Yes, Harry's isolation from his peers creates a sense of foreboding and doom. Yes, Hogwarts had been taken over by the Death Eaters. Yes, it allowed us to further explore the wizarding world. But I argued this point with my equally Harry Potter obsessed roommate last night for an hour and a half, and she finally gave in (according to her, she didn't give in, only admitted that I have a point. Whatever. It's the first argument I've ever come close to winning). 
The ability to spend an hour and a half arguing about a work of fiction is one of the more useful skills they teach you at Cornell. 

First off, four plot reasons.
  1. Harry would be safer at Hogwarts. Now, obviously, he couldn't just hop on the school train and motor down there, but there's other ways to get there. He and Ron fly to school in an invisible car in Book Two, and Harry's an expert on ways to sneak on and off school grounds. He could have had Kreacher Apparate him in (the chapter at Malfoy Manor establishes that house elves can bring people with them under wards and Voldemort doesn't know this). Heck, eventually he uses a tunnel into the Room of Requirement (which I will now call the RoR, because I'll be talking about it a lot) to sneak in. Why didn't he just tell Neville to open one at a set place and time? Or why not use a Portkey? We know from Book Four that a Portkey can get you in and out of Hogwarts. Once you're in the RoR, you're safe--you can make it so that no one who'll hurt you can get inside. Yes, it's dangerous, but so is wandering around in the wilderness when you have minimal camping experience and, besides, Harry  functions best when he's in mortal danger, as every single book goes out of their way to demonstrate.
  2. It's easier for Harry to find the Horcruxes at Hogwarts. Obviously, there's one hidden there, but there's more stuff he can use. Harry knows there's one thing there that can destroy Horcruxes--the basilisk fangs. He destroyed a Horcrux with one in Book Two. This entirely eliminates the need for the Sword of Gryffindor subplot (on a side note, Harry could also go and hide down in the Chamber of Secrets. Only Voldemort can open it and why would Voldemort think to look for him there? Voldemort doesn't know Harry can speak Parseltongue). Harry and friends would have an easier time doing things like plotting their break-in at Gringotts if they had access to the books in the Hogwarts library. Also, if they could access the school's employee records, they could have discovered Umbridge's address and her emergency contact information. Using those things, they could have ambushed her and stolen back the missing locket without having to break into the Ministry of Magic. 
  3. At Hogwarts, Harry has way more help. Neville, Ginny, and Luna form a secondary trio of characters that help him quite a lot in books Five and Six. We get tidbits of information about them during Book Seven and learn that they're trying their best to resist the Death Eaters controlling Hogwarts by restarting Dumbledore's Army. You remember, the student anti-Dark Arts club Harry started in Book Five and spent a good part of the book training to fight against the Death Eaters. That's exactly what they do in Book Seven . . . unfortunately  we don't get to witness any of it until the final battle. Instead, Neville Longbottom takes over from Harry as the leader of the student resistance. Not only do we not get to witness the student resistance, Neville is nowhere near as good at fighting the Dark Arts as Harry is. Which brings me to my next point.
  4. Harry has a moral responsibility to come back to Hogwarts. When he meets Neville in the tunnel leading back into the RoR, right before the final battle, Neville offhandedly mentions some of the things the horrible Carrow siblings have been doing to students. Kids get beaten up, tortured, are forced to torture other kids, get knife wounds to the face, taken hostage, chained up, tortured some more--some as young as eleven years old! In The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to be sent to certain death to save a twelve year old (who's her sister, but still). Harry's reaction to the same kind of evil is to go into hiding. He got the highest OWL score in Defense Against the Dark Arts of any student in his year. His presence, even if he was in hiding, would have provided a huge moral boost for the student resistance, and he could have coordinated with the teachers to help protect the kids. If you give Hermione the Invisibility Cloak and put her in the library, she will eventually find out where the Horcruxes are hidden. There is no need for Harry to be on an extended camping trip that doesn't actually help him accomplish anything. Yes, it's dangerous, but there are children being tortured, Harry. You're the hero. Hello?
And here's my five literary reasons. 
  1. It would have allowed the Harry/Ginny relationship to develop much better. In a story that's primarily about Harry and his two best friends, this romance always seemed a little forced. Harry and Ginny are friends, but I never detected any real chemistry between them. Sure, that's normal for a teenage relationship--but Book Seven is about these characters progressing into adulthood. Part of that progression is (I hate to say it in a Harry Potter article) sexual maturation. Now, I'm not saying I want an actual sex scene (Ron would kill him), but the proximity of danger could have sparked a little more chemistry between the two. Instead, we see the lonely Harry sitting in his tent and following Ginny's movements with the Marauder's Map. Tracing your girlfriend's every move may be a typical (horrible) teenage behavior, but it sure doesn't make me hope they get married at the end.
  2. We would have seen the resistance. The text mentions that Hagrid threw a 'Support Harry Potter Party' and then fled into the woods with the help of the giants. This would have been a great scene, had we actually seen it--Harry, discovering the plans and trying in vain to talk Hagrid out of it, brief moments of joy and celebration, and fleeing as the Death Eaters swoop down on the hut. While he's not searching for Horcruxes, Harry could lead guerrilla forays through the halls of Hogwarts. This could have filled in quite a few dry spots and, come on, Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Resistance is a way cooler book title. Since the Deathly Hallows don't really have much of an impact on the way the story turns out (the wand can just be a really powerful want, the cloak has been there since day one, and the stone doesn't really matter), let Harry connect with his friends and supporters, instead of isolating him from everything at the key point of the story.
  3. Hogwarts is so important to Harry. When he walks into Gringotts for the Great Horcrux Heist,  he thinks of how Hagrid brought him here on his eleventh birthday ("the best birthday of his life") and how he could have never dreamed he'd return to steal. It's a real poignant moment, but one that's a thousand times stronger at Hogwarts. This is the first place he ever felt happy, his childhood sanctuary, and it's being defiled by the Death Eaters. Instead of welcoming new students, they're torturing them. To see his powerful teachers made helpless and his sanctuary turn into  a war zone would kill Harry inside--which is exactly why he needs to be there. Seeing this would both push him into adulthood and galvanize him to keep fighting. There would be no time for Emo Potter sitting in the woods and wishing he had the Deathly Hallows, which again, have no real impact on the story at large. The Death Eaters have violated his most sacred sanctuary. So does Harry run or confront them? What makes a better story? 
  4. Finally, without Hogwarts, it's not a Harry Potter book. Lots of fantasy stories have wandering around in forests. Only Harry Potter has Hogwarts. There's a formula the books follow: Harry spends miserable summer with Dursleys, something magical happens, Harry goes off to school,  learns stuff, there's something weird going on, Harry solves the mystery, big fight, and Harry goes home. The reason this formula is so successful is that everyone who's ever been to school can relate to it. Hogwarts isn't just a set piece, it's the universe in which these stories take place. Without it, we loose our key connection to this world. We're just as isolated as Harry. The rich world Rowling has created is meant to be explored, of course--but not in the forests. In the places she's created. 
  5. Come on. Harry Potter and the Hogwarts Resistance? Awesome title or what?

And for those of you who say that Harry would have never found out about the location of the Horcrux  in the Lestrange vault if he hadn't been taken to Malfoy Manor, keep in mind that this happened over Hogwarts winter break and Luna had been captured and brought there. Harry might have very well decided to rescue Luna and gotten captured for his troubles. And if Snape had given Harry the real sword as per Dumbledore's instructions (which would have been easier at Hogwarts!), he might have very well had it on him there!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Book Review: Elfin, by Quinn Loftis

             As always, feel free to let me know what you think in the comments section.

             And it’s another paranormal romance! What drop-dead gorgeous supernatural creature will fall in love with a normal high school girl this week? Surprise! It’s an elf! That makes the tally one elf, one fallen angel, one werewolf, one demon, and Lancelot. Sooner or later, we’re going to start getting repeats. I’m surprised I haven’t run across a sexy vampire yet. This week’s book is Elfin, by Quinn Loftis—a romance with a strong, engaging plot full of unexpected twists and turns.
Red wine+white dress= recipe for disaster. Am I the only one who sees this?

            Our main character, Cassie, is a normal high school girl. Her father’s a president of finance in an oil company, but when his secretary goes on leave he requires his eighteen year old daughter to come in and do some filling for him, because apparently there are no interns, less senior employees, or other secretaries around to do the work. Of course, since the company is secretly owned by elves, they might very well have strict labor rules in place. As the last one in the office, Cassie glimpses some elves sitting around the table for what appears to be a board meeting. But as exiting as the world of fiscal management and the energy industry is, it’s nothing compared to the sexy elf (every single elf in this story is insanely sexy) who’s casually eavesdropping outside.

            His name is Trik. He’s the right hand man of the Dark Elf King, professional assassin and spy. This is all the spying he does in the book, unless stalking human girls counts as spying. Also, he only kills one person, and that’s neither for money or political reasons, so he’s not much of an assassin either. Despite what we’re told is a long history of assassin-ness and spy-ness, he’s never killed a child or raped anyone, so by the moral code of fantasy novels, he’s actually not a bad person. He’s actually kind of a pussy, which we can tell from the way he gushes over Cassie. You get the feeling that he’s trying to act a lot more badass than he really is. It’s cute.

            Anyway, he and Cassie meet and it turns out she’s his Chosen—his mystical soul mate, selected by fate, and neither of them have a real choice in the matter. Only Cassie’s purity can save him from giving into darkness completely. Problem is, Cassie’s not sure if she really wants to be bound to Trik for the rest of her life, since he’s kind of  a possessive asshole who has no clue how to treat women. Meanwhile, the Dark Elf King has devised a plot to destroy humanity by creating a new drug that induces impulsive behavior, promiscuity, and aggression. Think of alcohol, but as addictive as crack. This is an excellent plan to destroy humanity, by the way. When Cassie gets word of this, she gives Trik an ultimatum: quit your job or I’m leaving you.

            I won’t spoil the ending, but there were quite a few great twists and turns in there that are worth reading. My main issue with this story was Cassie’s character, who doesn’t really seem to have a personality. Her gothy BFF Elora has a lot more attitude and confidence—I’d love to see what would have happened if she’d been Trik’s girl. Cassie struggles with Trik’s character on a number of occasions, but never asks herself if it’s fair that she’s basically been forced into this relationship. Many YA novels struggle with this problem of strong supporting characters and weak protagonists (save Divergent, in which all the characters suck).
             Her two traits are virginity (which isn’t actually a character trait, as I explain here and here) and overreacting to minor issues—for example, upon being told Trik was dancing (well, she kissed him, but all Cassie is told is that they danced together) with an ex-girlfriend at a club, she wonders how “the same guy who had held her and kissed her so passionately had been in the arms of another hours later.” They’re his arms. You do not own them. It’s dancing. Not sex, not kissing, not flirting. If you’re worried about it, talk to him and ask him what happened. Don’t curl up and cry. Jeez, it might all be a misunderstanding. Of course, Trik is too afraid to talk to her for a month (further supporting my theory that he’s a pussy). Both these characters could use advice from a professional. Communication therapy—is that so hard?

            Also, the descriptive paragraphs at the beginning could have used some editing. You do not need to spend three sentences on the first page describing a pair of boots. You just don’t. All the elves are described as beautiful, godly, perfect, I get it. What kind of message does this send to teenage girls? The only acceptable male is one that looks perfect? And even though I thought Trik and Cassie’s relationship was kind of cute, I did not need it rammed down my throat every two pages that they belong together. Seriously. I get it already.

            Highs: Supporting characters. Elora, Lisa, and the Light Elves all have unique voices and character traits. I get that Cassie’s supposed to be just normal, but normal teenagers have hobbies and ambitions. Also, she’s a senior in high school from a fairly successful family, yet college applications aren’t mentioned at all That’s a major plot hole right there. Humor. There’s a couple scenes where Trik worries that Cassie’s underage and he doesn’t kiss her until he’s sure she’s legal. Keep in mind, he was born when most human girls married at age twelve, but this badass dark assassin respects the law more than most real human teenagers do. Jeez. Elora also provides well needed comic relief, as she continually makes jokes about Trik’s ‘quiver’.

            Lows: Description. When we’re not getting three sentences about a pair of boots, we see this forest—“It was picture perfect. She was sure she had never seen anything so breathtaking.” Whatever happened to ‘For a moment, Cassie couldn’t breath’? Blocky paragraphs. Some paragraphs are nine sentences long, and quite a few of them are about Cassie and Trik making out. The make-out paragraphs are neither sexy nor interesting, and I found myself skimming most of them. We get it. He’s hot.

            All in all, Elfin’s got a clear plot that kept me reading. Unfortunately, the main character didn’t really grab me like I’d hoped. As YA paranormal, I’ll give it four stars out of five. As a novel, three and a half.

--Liz Ellor, O43

You can purchase Elfin here

Monday, January 21, 2013

Carrots: The Orange Menace

Note: The following is partially excerpted from the essay that got me into UVA. There was going to be another joke here about it keeping me out of a university that had a carrot as a mascot, but there aren't any. 

Well, folks, I'm having a just wonderful start to my semester, what with it being 22 degrees outside and all. According to my roommate, it was negative seven last night, which made me worry until I realized that she measures everything via the metric system. 

But I'm back at school now, and I'm so, so, so exited to be learning things (almost as exited as I was to get my cavities filled!) For all you poor southerners who get MLK Day off, I thought I'd slip a little tidbit of education your way. Did you know the orange carrot was cultivated in the 17th century by the Dutch as a tribute to William of Orange? If only they'd just started growing, like, actual oranges instead, my life would be so much easier. 

You see, I hate carrots. Whenever I'd get ramen noodles at those chilly spring track meets (only after racing, I swear), I would pick out the dehydrated 'carrot' chunks and flick them onto the bleachers with a plastic fork. Neesha, our team captain, was the only person I ever actually hit. Her and some Lake Braddock sprinters, but they decided to rub our loosing record in our face, so whatever.

 But the carrot problem's gotten to the point where whenever my mom makes stew, she makes me a separate portion without the carrots. This is slightly embarrassing, because I like to pretend that I'm a mature adult. Mature adults don't need their mommies to make them special dinners. However, she's realized that if she gives me carrots, I will pick them out and put them on the side of the plates.

Taylor, naturally, tells me that I need to grow up and stop acting like a baby.  

This video is me, as a baby, refusing to eat carrots. Note the way I eat the applesauce when my father offers it to me, but keep my mouth shut when it's carrots on the spoon. 

I hate carrots. I have hated them all my life. I will hate them until the day I die. Unfortunately  my friend Sarah (the brunette Sarah from high school) is one of the sweetest, kindest people in the whole wide world. She loves nothing more than serving her fellow man--which sometimes leads to her serving her friend carrots. 

So I'm over at her house and her mom asks me to stay for lunch. I say sure and ask what I can do to help. She relegates me—novice cook that I am—to tasks that in no way, shape, or form involved the oven. Set the table, pour the drinks, and prepare the family’s favorite vegetable.


Taylor says the way I do anything in the kitchen is wrong, but Sarah, for some reason (like manners) didn't comment on how long it took me to skin the carrots. Which is a good thing, because I was about to gag the whole time. Then we sat down and I filled my mouth with water before shoving in a carrot and chowing down as quickly as humanly possible. Of course, when Sarah read the award-winning* essay I wrote on my ordeal, she was quite upset: “Dear Liz, you shouldn’t have felt obligated to eat them!” Of course, it's a nice attitude like that which explains why I felt obligated to eat them.

Of course, Taylor makes me eat carrots, too. One night, I came over to her house to watch a movie. I even called ahead first, which I don't always do, so she really should have been in my debt. We made (she made, I nearly ruined) a delicious Asian stir-fry with tofu, peppers, and—you guessed it—carrots. All was well until about halfway through the movie, when she noticed that my plate was covered in uneaten orange cubes.

            “Why aren’t you eating your carrots?” Her eyes narrowed into reptilian slits. Her pupils flashed red. This was probably just my imagination. 

            “I don’t like ‘em.”  I mutter, staring down at my lap.

            She wrinkled up her face in the same way she does when my stupid dog tries to put her tongue in Taylor's eye. “Are you crazy? Everyone likes carrots!”

            “Not me. You’re not my mother!”

            "Eat them!"

            "No!" I fold my hands over my chest. "I'm not eating them. And that's final."

            Yeah, I ended up eating them. To be fair, she did bribe me with one of her cupcakes, so it wasn't actually that bad or anything. I mean, I've driven that girl all across Northern Virginia for a cupcake.

           Of course, she bakes me carrot cake cupcakes for my birthday. The ironic thing? They're the best cupcakes I've ever tasted.

            *By award-winning, I mean it won me a place at a college I didn't go to.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book Review: Pello Island: Cassia, by A. L. Jambor

Feel free to leave comments to tell me what you think!

This week, we return to the wonderful world of romance with Pello Island: Cassia, by A. L. Jambor. This historical romance spans thousands of years as our eternally-reincarnated heroes choose to fight or embrace their destinies. Every life, they make different decisions--and if they could get it right just once, they'll have their chance at freedom. The characters' weariness with their cursed lives and struggle to overcome their flaws help weave a story that is endearing and compelling. While the historical parts are a bit drier than the modern day ones, both halves work together to create a story that I couldn't put down.

Not sure what the face-thing is supposed to be.
Cassia, our heroine, wakes up on heroin (actually, it's cocaine, but the pun was too great to pass up). It's not the first time she's found herself in a new body, and she stoically drags herself to the hospital to begin detoxifying herself and to meet up with her partners-in-reincarnation. Her cynical attitude and her resignation makes it clear that this isn't the first time she's done this. In fact, she's fed up with the whole dealio. Nevertheless, she's willing to trudge along--until she's informed that this life, she'll either break free of the curse or spend eternity in Hades. The catch? To break free, she'll have to marry her childhood sweetheart. Again.

Darius, though attractive and properly attitude-y, is bad news for Cassia. He's had a gambling problem since Ancient Rome--and because of that addiction, something bad's fated to happen in every single life for him, Cassia, and their currently-missing daughter, Dulcia. Darius' struggle with addiction is both realistically portrayed and sympathetic. Despite his flaws, his longing to make things right with Cassia made him a very compelling character. And likewise with Cassia's struggle to balance her old love for Darius with the knowledge that he can't be trusted.

Most of the story takes place in ancient Rome, where the Reincarnation Buddies grew up. A young Cassia fights the marriage her father tries to arrange for her and dreams of true love. And handsome nobleman Darius fits the bill. But when Darius' irresponsibility threatens to keep them apart, it's up to Cassia to do whatever it takes to bring them together.

This book is an excellent set up for the rest of the series and left me wanting more. Ancient Roman Cassia is extremely different than her modern counterpart, but Jupiter only knows how the years take their toll. There's a few anachronisms--for example, the towel wasn't invented until the fourteenth century--and Cassia's attitude is a little bit too modern to feel ancient. And I wish we had gotten more of the modern day and a little less history, but here both parts weave together to form a cohesive whole, because you know the mystery of their modern day reincarnations--and the key to gaining their freedom--can only lie in their past.

Highs: Character development. All the main characters are quite engrossing, though the secondary characters could use a little more depth. Pacing. Everything moves quite quickly and had me turning pages until the end. Secrecy. By the end, I couldn't wait to find out how exactly the characters had found themselves in this situation.

Lows: Anachronisms. They break with reality to me. Division. I would have liked to see a little more modern and a little less ancient.

My rating? For historical romance, four stars out of five. As a novel, four and a half.

You can download Pello Island: Cassia here

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: Dahlia (Blood Crave series), by Christina Channelle

            Welcome back to the wonderful world of YA paranormal romance—the genre that answers the question “What if supernatural creatures walked among us?” with “They’d be eighteen, drop-dead gorgeous, and totally willing to pork the outcast girl who’s always thought she was ‘different’.” This week’s book, Dahlia, is the first in the Blood Crave Series, by author Christina Channelle (who has an absolutely wonderful name). While Dahlia introduces a compelling mystery and quite a few interesting characters, its focus on internal monologue and unoriginal romance left me feeling less than amazed.
Yet another professional cover! Wonderful!

            Dahlia, the title character, has always known she’s different. She’s grown up in foster homes and orphanages, and only now has found some stability in the home of the Cahill family. Despite being annoyed by the antics of her foster brother, Sam, Dahlia knows he’s her first real friend in years. Their cute, brother-sister interaction is one of my favorite parts of the book. Dahlia’s just about to start at Sam’s high school—but something’s up. Two mysterious men are living in the forest and following her around. Dahlia thinks back to walking into rooms covered in blood as a child. It creates a creepy, mysterious vibe that permeates the start of the book.

            I got a little wary when we approached Dahlia’s first day at school—it seems every YA book requires a scene where the character goes to a new school and describes every single class, teacher, and student. Thankfully, Channelle doesn’t do this. There is the obligatory lunchroom scene where she meets the obligatory Group of Friends, but that turns out to be necessary to the story. Best of all, she doesn’t describe how every clique sits at its own table.

            The story runs into a few pacing problems in the middle. There’s a lot of internal monologue—Dahlia thinking to herself. It can get pretty repetitive, what with her telling herself over and over that what’s happening to her shouldn’t be possible, and that she feels like she’s different than everyone else, and that she hungers for blood. Saying something ten times does not make the emotion you’re trying to convey ten times as strong.

            There also isn’t a strong sense of direction. In one of my favorite YA paranormal romances, City of Bones, the heroine journeys to the aforementioned City to meet a group of seers who find the name Magnus Bane imprinted on her subconscious. Bane turns out to be a notorious warlock, so the heroine and her friends have to crash a party he’s throwing to interrogate him. While leaving the party, one of her friends is abducted by vampires, so heroine + love interest have to go rescue him . . .  One event causes another distinct event. This events allow the characters to explore the world while simultaneously developing the plot and deepening the sense of danger.

             Dahlia may learn secrets about herself and fall in love, but we never get the feeling the plot is going somewhere. She goes to school and to parties, but these events only serve as backdrops. As much as I liked her character at the beginning, she lacks a concrete goal. The romance also didn’t really grab me—there wasn’t much to differentiate it from any of the hundreds of other romances I’ve read about. Despite Dahlia thinking at one point that ‘what she and [love interest] had was complicated’, it actually isn’t that complicated. He’s got a stereotypical godlike physique and special green eyes. She’s attracted to him even when he’s practically mugging her in a park. He’s got big secrets he’s hiding from her. At some point, these secrets make Dahlia angry, which happens in every romantic story written ever.

            The strengths of Dahlia lie primarily in the supporting characters. Sam, Dahlia’s goofy-yet-supportive foster brother manages to be genuinely pleasant while at the same time having a bit of an edge as he tries to encourage Dahlia to break out of her shell. And the mysterious Ava kept me reading just to find out what her motives were. As a first novel, it’s honestly not bad. Channelle has a talent for creating interesting characters. If the plot of future novels can build a little more tension, she might be a writer to watch.

            Highs: Establishing characters. I found it pretty easy to sympathize with Dahlia from the start. Creepiness. The mentions of her walking into a room covered in blood sent shivers up my spine. The climax. It’s clear cut and feels very dangerous.

            Lows: The slow beginning. It takes ten paragraphs to fit in the first three lines of dialogue. The magic scheme. I found it kind of hard to take seriously. There’s only so many supernatural things you can mix together and this story reeks of Our Vampires Are Different. When the magical history of the universe is explained, we get it once without character names and directly afterwards with the character names added. One of those could be cut.

            My rating? For YA paranormal romance, four stars. For a novel, three.

You can download Dahlia here

Friday, January 11, 2013

Four Cavities: A Cautionary Tale

Most kids' TV shows address it in one format or the other: the anthropomorphic animal protagonist, whether frog or anteater or bunny, having to go to the dentist. The animal, hearing all kinds of stories from older animals, is terrified out of his/her/its mind. But the dentist is nice! The office is warm and friendly! The toothpaste tastes like bubble gum! At the end, the animal is given a balloon and skips out of the office with a  on their face. "You know what, Mommy?" they say to the bigger animal who may or may not be their own species, "The dentist isn't that bad after all!" 
Clearly, he's not a very good dentist, since he seems to be missing every other tooth.

And so goes childhood. The dentist cleans your teeth and gives you a sticker. You leave happy, never dreaming about, never fearing, the darkness that lurks beneath the surface. But I have gone there, my friends.  I have ventured into the primal shadow hanging just beyond the dentist's chair. The stories are no more than vile propaganda from the Dark Lords of Dentistry. 

Go home. Hug your remaining teeth. Cry.

My journey into the dark side of teeth began last week, when I showed up at the dentist's office for a semi-annual cleaning. I believe the hygienist working on my teeth hates me, for some obscure reason. She has a smile that looks like it's being created by some metal device in her jawbone. It never moves. 

I recoil in pain as she jabs a sharp stick into my gum.

"It hurts, doesn't it? That's because you don't floss."

Actually, I do floss. "It hurts because you're poking my gum with a pointy thing!"

Surprise flickers across her face. Apparently, I'm the first person to ever point this out to her. I wonder why. She mumbles something about flossing more and then asks me what flavor of toothpaste I want. "Is cherry okay? We also have mint, root beer, and banana."

Now, I hate cherry flavored toothpaste. But I am an adult. I'm going to the adult dentist, the one who doesn't give out stickers or balloons or count off my teeth in his best "Count from Sesame Street" voice. So over my dead body am I going to ask for the root beer flavor. "No, cherry's fine," I say, like a world-weary adult, and I try to turn off my taste buds as she massages the disgusting cherry stuff into my gums. It doesn't work too well.

Then comes the dentist to look at my teeth. Normally, he just does a quick look, flashes me a thumbs up, and lets me leave. This time, though, a light pops up in his eyes. The light of a man who has just seen a great deal of money drop out of the sky and into his lap. 

"Oh," he says, deeply 'concerned'. "These four teeth need fillings."

Now, I have never had a cavity before. Ever. Ever, ever, ever. This seems especially unfair, as I have actually been flossing my teeth. Flossing! That should guaranteeing me immunity from every tooth related problem ever (and Taylor says it will, but that I'm doing it wrong). Immediately, I blame the New York water--specifically, the fact that they use it to make the sodas in the dining halls I drink three glasses of a day.

"How much will it cost to fill them?" I ask. When I hear the figure, I immediately wish I was being poked in the gums by the sharp stick again.

However, I am a jaded consumer. I'm not easily wooed into parting with my money if something isn't necessary (stop snickering, Taylor, I need that liberal arts education). I cock my head, meet his eyes, and ask, "What'll happen if I don't get them filled?"

Apparently, the seas will turn to blood. The Antichrist will arise. Everyone will be marked on their wrist and forearm with the Number of the Beast--which, coincidentally, is a much lower figure than what it will cost me to get these cavities filled. 

Properly cowed, I walk up to the front desk and make two appointments--one for the cavaties on my right jaw, and one for the cavities on my left. The woman at the desk seems pretty upbeat. I'm guessing she takes a cut of the action. 

"How was your appointment?" she asks, handing me the bill.

In tribute to my hygienist, I fix a robotic grin on my face. "Great! Absolutely great!"

And my father agrees to foot the bill, provided I allow him and the rest of the family to remind me over and over for the rest of my life that I got four whole cavities my first semester at college. Talk is cheap, so I agree. Molly seems to find it insanely funny. I just remind myself that my first semester was also the time my breasts grew a whole extra size, so all in all it's worth the exchange.

Or so I thought. Until I returned for my first filling.

"How are you today?" the receptionist asks.

"As great as anyone who has four cavities can be!" I say, matching her enthusiasm high for high. 

A male hygienist I've never seen before (maybe they only bring him out on special occasions, like whenever an unruly patient has to be restrained by force?) leads me to the room in the very back. A lot of very big instruments sit next to the chair. I can't shake the suspicion that they're all going to end up in my mouth.

"Here's some numbing cream," the hygienist says, sticking a cotton swab with a blue liquid the same color as my fingernails in my mouth. 

This color. Great for fingernails, creepy for mouth
"Don't swallow," he says, as my jaw begins to go numb.

Automatically, spit starts building up in the back of my mouth. Don't swallow. There is absolutely nothing I want more in the whole wide world then to swallow. My throat needs it, I feel like I'm choking, and the numb, tingly feeling in my jaw doesn't really help too much. I can't feel half my tongue. So I focus on the patterns in the wallpaper and the classic rock station playing "Eye of the Tiger". That same song played as I charged up the first hill at Runnin' With The Wolves my junior year, where I set a PR and came in fifth overall . I can't help feeling humbled, but I reassure myself by thinking that at least I'm not in pain. 

I thought too soon.

The dentist sits down next to me, raising a miniature version of a European torture device in one hand--to inject me with Novacane, supposedly. However, all I see is another pointy thing designed to poke me in the gums. "Will that hurt?" I ask.

"Yes," he says.

"Lie to me, doc!" I plead.

"This won't hurt a bit." He smiles. "Actually, it won't hurt me a bit."

That's when I mutter a bad word under my breath. He laughs. "Just tell me when you're ready."

Come on, Liz, you're a runner. You've felt worse pain than a shot in your gum. Of course, that pain was somewhat dulled by adrenaline and actually wanting to be doing what I was doing. All I can see is that needle, that bright metal injection device designed to puncture one of the most sensitive parts of the body. My biological education unhelpfully informs me that, while the numbing cream will dull the pain of entry, it doesn't numb anything below the surface.

"We could do this without the Novacane," he suggests. 

I clench my fists. "Do it!" 

The shot to my upper jaw seems to last three times as long as any flu shot, vaccine, or blood collection ever has. Part of me screams that he's drawing it out on purpose. 

"Now for the bottom gum," he announces.There is a spark. My tooth is electrocuted (and I know exactly what that feels like). "Huh. Hit a nerve." 

I fight the urge to bite his finger. 

My tooth is electrocuted again. This time, I feel the exact shape of the nerve in my tooth. It has three main branches. Two point towards the back of my throat and one points out. One of the inward facing ones is a little lower than the other two. Mankind was not meant to know this much detail about the inside of their teeth. 

"Hit it going in and out. That's bad luck." 

"Euugh!" I gasp out. It's the only thing I'm capable of saying with two people's fingers in my mouth. 

He pats me on the shoulder. "I'll be right back."

The Novacane spreads through my jaw, thankfully numbing the throbbing stab wounds in my gum. When the dentist returns, he's got his big drill in hand and looks like a cowboy about to mount his favorite rodeo horse. 

"Keep your mouth wiiiiiide open," he drawls, and starts drilling away. 

Stuff begins flying out of my mouth--drops of spit or bits of tooth, I'm not sure which. The whine of the drill combines with the sweet smell of burning friction to remind me of my high school robotics class. It feels like someone is constructing a robot in my mouth

"Nicholas didn't show up for his appointment today," the hygienist says. 

"Oh, really?" The dentist shifts the angle of the drill. I press my tongue to the floor of my mouth, fearing that at any second, I'm about to gain a hipster style tongue piercing. 

"Yeah. He wasn't wearing his Invisalign all week and he was worried his teeth had shifted."

"Huh. Well, re-schedule him for next week."

How are they talking shop when there's a freaking drill in my mouth? Does no one see the deadly seriousness of this? There is a drill. Running. In my mouth. I need that mouth to live, darn it!

And so it goes. I close my eyes and pretend that I am anywhere but here, even when I taste burning rubber in my mouth and the endless chant of open wider, wider, wider echoes in my ears. I am on a desert island, where my jaw is burning and my spit tastes awful, where my mouth is being rinsed and dried and all types of terrible industrial processes. At last, at last, the terrible din stops and the dentist tells me I can close my mouth. 

"But be careful you don't bite your tongue!" 

Carefully aware of my tongue, I close my mouth at last. My cheek feels gigantic and tingly. The stab wounds are waiting to reappear and make my life miserable. My shaking hands grab my purse. I limp towards the door.

"See you tomorrow!" the horribly cheerful receptionist says. I stumble out to my car where I wrap my arms around my steering wheel and hyperventilate for a few good moments. 

"It's over. It's over. It's over." But it isn't over. I've got to go back tomorrow and repeat the ordeal. And that's the moment where I swear to myself that I will never, ever drink another soda. Never.

It's strictly milkshakes from here on out. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

All my friends have cooler cars than me.

So my mom's telling me all about the car she had when she was a teenager. It was orange and black, and apparently looked like a very scary pumpkin. Someone spray painted the word 'High' on the side in blue spray paint once. It was the seventies, she tells me. Things were different then. 

But I don't care. Three colors? On one car? And I drive a boring grey Hyundai? 

Seriously, all my friends have cooler cars than me. Taylor's is a blue sports car. Katherine has the red Mini. Sarah has the blue Prius. Rekha has the green Escape. Sarah (the other Sarah, not to be confused with Cornell Sarah or the other Cornell Sarah--come to think of it, this 'Sarah' thing is becoming a problem. I think one of them is a Sara) has a red sedan. What do they have in common? Color. Bright, shiny color. Cool, retro/stylish/expensive colorful cars. And I drive a grey Hyundai.
This. This should be my car.

Come to think of it, most of the boys I know drive cars that are older than I am. I guess their parents don't trust them with expensive cars--but you'd think they'd buy cars that didn't have sawdust in the airbag compartments. 
A ton of my favorite memories occurred in these cars, so I'm willing to let it slide. I completely forgot what Sarah, Rekha, Katherine, and I were doing in the hours before the winter sports banquet last year, but I know what we weren't doing: buying the flowers for coaches and parent volunteers. 

Somehow, we all pilled into Sarah's little Prius and drove to Panera, which in case you didn't know, is like a magnet for teenage girls. We got smoothies and artisan sandwiches. All save Katherine, who got the mac and cheese. Katherine loves cheese sauce. I've seen her lick empty bowls to get up the last few drops of alfredo sauce while she was sitting in a public restaurant. I've also seen the look of devastation on her face when she spilled her pasta on my pants (my face was also kind of devastated, because there was cheese sauce in my crotch). Her eyes lit with the fervor of redemption when the server brought her a new bowl free of charge and she proceeded to lick it clean.

So, anyway, there we were at Panera, chatting, gossiping, and having a good time. Since Taylor had refused to come (as usual, she had homework), I was forced to assume the roll of responsible friend. This is not my best role.

"Guys," I would say every now and them. "The banquet's starting soon. Shouldn't we head back?"

"We've got plenty of time," Rekha would say. And of course, we had a pile of about fifty paper plate awards to complete for every single person on the team. So we had plenty of time. Until, of course, we didn't.

"Ahhhh!" Rekha said once we sent Sarah away to make her paper plate. "Guys, we have fifteen minutes until it starts!"

"Okay, okay," Katherine said. "Focus on Sarah's plate. What should we do for her?"

We all put our heads together to try to think of an award we could give Sarah. Absolutely nothing comes to mind. 

"Guys," Sarah said. "Are you done yet? We have to get going." 

Now, this was the exact same thing I'd been telling them all evening long, although I guessed apparently Sarah's vote tipped the scales. "We'll do it in the car," Katherine said, and we all sprinted into the parking lot and squeezed back into the little Prius. Lazy country music floated from the radio as Sarah pressed the 'On' button.

Seriously. An 'On' button. Like a freaking iPod. 

"Go go go!" Rekha shouts as the Prius hightails it out of the parking lot, zips across the busy highway, and floors it up a sidestreet leading back to the school. 

"We still have to get flowers!" Sarah says.

My phone buzzed: a text from Rekha, asking what award we should give Sarah. I text her back saying I don't know.

We come to the left turn onto Braddock Road. Cars are zooming in both directions. It's a turn around a blind corner, one that's tricky in daylight. This night, it was a near-death experience. 

"Come on come on come on!" Sarah shouts at the cars, drumming her fingers on the wheel. "We're going to be late!" The engine revs (or bubbles, since this is a Prius), and a car whips over a hill, cutting us off. Sarah slams on the breaks. Rekha gasps. Sarah hisses. She's making the face. You know the one.
This one.
My phone buzzes. A text from Katherine: "Most Impatient?"

"Good idea," I text her, and start writing that on a paper plate as Sarah stomps down on the gas, throwing us around the corner so fast the marker leaves a line on the plate. 

"Oh my god, oh my god," Rekha says as I try to turn the mark into a design or something. 

Thankfully, the Giant isn't too far up the road. "Park close, park close!" Katherine says, leaning over into the driver's seat. 

"I can't find a space!" Sarah says.

"Just park!" I say.

"Here? There?"


No sooner has the Prius' bubble come to a stop than we all throw ourselves out of the car. I left my door hanging open and had to sprint back to close it, but I think I did pretty well aside from that. We all run into the store. Thankfully, the flowers are in the front.

Sarah's face goes white. "How many parent volunteers are there?"

Somehow, we decide the number is two, plus three for the coaches. We grab the flowers and run to the nearest register, where we feed bills from the envelope of money the boys gave us into the self-service check out. Then we sprint back to the Prius and race back down the road to TJ, where I tuck Sarah's paper plate under my shirt as we run for the cafeteria door, bunches of flowers in hand.

It's locked.

The entire team is waiting inside and a few bangs on the door convinces Dylan and/or Chris (some short blond guy) to let us in. Mike stands just behind them. "You are so late," he says. Taylor gives us a dirty look as we come and sit down next to her. Clearly, I have failed in my duties as the responsible friend. 

"What kept you?" she says.

"Flowers," I say, stuffing Sarah's paper plate into the pile with the rest. Taylor makes a sniffing noise, implying that if she'd been in charge, the flowers would have been here hours ago. 

"Sign these cars," she says. "They're for the three parent volunteers." 

I shoot a glance at the bundles of flowers. Three for the coaches, two for the . . . 

Sarah's face has gone completely white again. "Three?"

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Book Review: But The Children Survived, by A. L. Jambor

            First of all, if you disagree with my assessment, please feel free to post about it in the comments section. And if you agree, please please post, because I’ve got a feeling that this one’s gonna stir up some controversy.

            It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel . . . like I read this a few weeks ago. It was called Tycho, and it was about a whole lot of people—like, the entire population of the earth—dying because of a biological weapon. It’s the same scenario this week, in A. L. Jambor’s But The Children Survived, except two hundred pages longer and with many more narrators. When only a small group of children appear immune to the plague, it’s up to a team of scientists, working in an airtight biosphere in Florida, to uncover the mysterious machinations of the pharmaceutical company whose greed doomed millions . . . and whose knowledge might yet hold the key to humanity’s survival. But The Children Survived is full of interesting ideas, but the excess of characters make it hard to sympathize with anyone and the constant backstory slows the story to a snail’s crawl.
Professional cover design! Love that!
            The protagonist, Mindy, is staying at her grandmother’s house with her dog, Baby Girl, when the apocalypse strikes. Terrified and alone, with only her grandmother’s gun and old dog for protection, she forages for supplies in the dead wasteland until a team of scientists in haz-mat suits drags her back to their biodome. There, she finds food, shelter, and friends. Yet Mindy doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life in the biodome—at least not until she knows whether her parents are still alive. When loner Mark arrives at the biodome, Mindy gets the chance to escape she’s been waiting for.

            As the story unfolds, we learn the history of every last scientist living at the biodome. Christie, the only female scientist, suffered the loss of her husband and child in a car accident. Gerald, another kooky researcher, had a bad break up with his wife. While the backstory has its interesting points, it can be a little tedious in parts. But The Children Survived is roughly forty percent backstory of how the plague—and the children’s immunity—came to be. You honestly have to love the characters to put up with the slow pace, and the characters didn’t feel real enough to draw me in. The author’s voice is the same for every character, and they all seem to blend together after a while.

             The journey of Antonio, an Italian scientist seeking a cure for the pregnancy complication that took his mother’s life, is one of the high points of the book. Antonio is a genuinely interesting character, but the suspense of his quest is dampened by long, pointless asides. There’s an entire chapter where Antonio’s wife looks for stud to breed her dog with—a chapter that could have been summed up in one or two sentences. Likewise with all the backstory about this pharmaceutical company. We learn early on in the book that the apocalypse was caused by an insane scientist releasing the weapon. The internal drama of this company, as compelling as it might be in another setting, isn’t necessary because the readers already know that the company and almost everyone who works for it is going to die, rendering it pointless to the main story. Complex plots that are revealed in bits and pieces can be good things, but only if the bits and pieces contribute to the main story. One hundred and fifty pages could easily have been cut.

            One character, who struggles with a gambling addiction, has to make sense of a world where money no longer has value. That’s an interesting, fresh idea—and yet, it’s hard for me to sympathize with him. We’re told he ‘finds God’ through caring for the orphaned children. Great for him. However, as a Christian woman, I know that finding God can be an emotionally exhausting, painful, sometimes euphoric process full of bumps along the way. But the words on the page don’t evoke those emotions. Maybe they would for another reader, but the burden of making me feel rests on the author’s shoulders alone.

            The author’s skill with tactile imagery only extends to, over and over, describing how bad all the corpses smell and how after a few weeks they’re nothing but bone and hair. It was a shocking image the first time I heard a rotting body described in print—when I was, what, twelve? Now it’s routine. Encountering the human body in decay should be sobering. It reminds us we only have so long to live. These are characters encountering mortality in the most painful of ways and yet few of them show any real trauma. None show symptoms of PTSD, not even the children who have seen everyone they know and love drop dead around them. This would be extremely traumatizing in real life. They would need therapy. They would not be as playful and kind to each other as we see here.

            When large groups of real people are confined to close quarters, fights break out. Cliques form. Leaders arise and so do challengers. Heck, you’ll get this in any dorm on any college campus. These people are under way more stress than your average college student and yet they all seem to get along fine. It’s tempting for an author to make all their characters get along—if you like these characters you’ve created, it follows that they must like each other. A little internal tension would have gone a long way towards creating suspense. There’s one disliked character in the group, but without major divisions, the story feels artificial.

            But The Children Survived is certainly an ambitious undertaking. The backstory, even if it is mostly irrelevant to the plot, is well organized and there weren’t too many plotholes I could spot. There’s some good lines: “Joe’s inability to accept responsibility had always caused him to create an alternate universe wherein he was the victim of everyone else’s plots.” And there’s some genuinely creepy moments, involving test tubes of the biological weapons referred to as ‘my babies’ and one man’s twisted love of his cow. The author has a real gift for writing crazy characters that freak me out—but the normal characters lack the spark of madness that make the crazy ones shine.

            Highs: Mindy’s quest to find her parents. We really feel for this little girl who’s all on her own and the author makes us hope her parents will survive. The prologue. It has an excellent twist that really grabbed my interest. The creepiness. Again, the author really made me shiver when I read about her villains.

            Lows: Literal Chekov’s Gun. Mindy has a gun she took from her grandmother’s collection. Yet she only uses it to shoot a rat. That should be foreshadowing, not the only time that gun is ever used. Bad word choice. I would expect something like “They were more than friends; they were brothers and sisters in the trenches, akin to soldiers in war. All their inhibitions were gone, their masks stripped away,” to fit erotica, not a meeting of children. Backstory. So much of it could have been cut. Deleting scenes you love is part of being a writer.

            As apocalyptic fiction, I give it three stars out of five. As a novel, two and a half. And if you disagree, please feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section.

You can download But The Children Survived hereYou can also go here and purchase my book, Iceclaw.